Dickens of a week lies ahead for Christmas ghost storyteller James Swanton

James Swanton: Dickensian storyteller par excellence. PIcture: Jayne Nicoll

AFTER spinning yarns all this week at London’s Charles Dickens Museum, Gothic York actor James Swanton returns home with his Ghost Stories for Christmas.

At the time of going to CharlesHutchPress, only five tickets remain on sale for the entire run.

As last year, Swanton will be performing three Dickens works, one each night, at York Medical Society, Stonegate, from Tuesday to Saturday.

A Christmas Carol on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday will be complemented by the lesser performed The Chimes on Wednesday and The Haunted Man on Friday, all at 7pm.

Swanton, the Outstanding Performing Artist winner in the 2018 York Culture Awards, will be the black-clad gatekeeper for all manner of supernatural terrors after memorising three hours of wintery material for his “seasonal roulette of three Dickensian tales”.

Ahead of his Dickens of a week in York, James answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions.

Why is A Christmas Carol so amenable to being presented in so many guises each winter in York and elsewhere, James?

“Could it be that it’s the greatest story ever written? Ebenezer Scrooge has joined Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula as Victorian literature’s most endlessly adapted characters.

“But unlike the master detective and the master vampire, who constantly crop up in diverse new contexts, Scrooge remains inseparable from his original story. It’s perfectly structured and passionately written. It demands to be told, just as we all demand to hear it, year after year. There’s a great responsibility not to do it badly!”

What form do your three shows take: a reading or more than that in each one-man show?

“I’m happy to say that these are full-fledged dramatisations rather than Jackanory-style readings. This has been quite the Labour of Hercules: 180 minutes of text to memorise to cover the three one-hour readings! But it’s worth it to ensure these pieces are truly alive. My abridgements are closely based on Dickens’s own performance scripts, so their faith to their sources is absolute.”

Will you use a similar performance style for each tale?

“This is old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space. I’m hoping to use every physical and vocal trick in my repertoire to make the audience see Dickens’s pictures as clearly as I do myself.

“The formidable Miriam Margolyes saw me performing one of these pieces in 2017 at the Charles Dickens Museum. She was very complimentary about its pictorial vividness – and she’s not easily pleased!”

Give quick synopses of The Chimes and The Haunted Man…

“Just like A Christmas Carol, these lesser-known works hinge on disenchanted older men who must encounter the supernatural to change for the better. The Chimes is the exuberant tale of a lowly ticket-porter who finds goblins squatting in the bells of his local church.

“Meanwhile, The Haunted Man is a Gothic chiller about a chemist who hatches a bargain with his ghostly double to remove all of his sorrowful memories.”

Dickens’s concern over Ignorance and Want rings out in A Christmas Carol. Rather than being ghosts, the ills of greed and the need for charity and care for others are as alive as ever. Discuss.

“You know, the absence of Ignorance and Want might be the only flaw in The Muppet Christmas Carol (a near-perfect film, as everyone knows). Dickens spectacularly revives the figure of Ignorance in The Haunted Man, in which the feral child receives a ferocious human embodiment. Deeply disturbing.

“And The Chimes is so socially angry that it might as well be called ‘A Brexit Christmas Carol’. It attacks the untrustworthy press, the still more untrustworthy rich, and a world that condemns the poor without considering how they came to such grief. These might be Victorian ghost stories, but they are indisputably stories for our own age.”

We still respond to what Dickens says in a way that contrasts with so many people turning their back on religion. Why?

“Dickens might be considered to have reinvented Christianity for an increasingly secular world. He’s particularly invested in the idea of redemption, and how it might be realised through the death of an innocent child.

“Death is ever-present for Christ, even at the Nativity: think of King Herod’s massacre of the innocents, or the Wise Man who gifts him with the myrrh that’ll preserve his body after the crucifixion.

“All three of these Dickensian ghost stories centre on children in mortal peril. Tiny Tim must be resurrected just as miraculously as Scrooge. Dickens suggests that we can conquer death, but in ways more practical than waiting for an afterlife.”

James Swanton’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, 7pm nightly; A Christmas Carol, December 17, 19, 21; The Chimes, December 18; The Haunted Man, December 20. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

James Swanton with his bust of actor Henry Irving in Irving Undead at York Medical Society in October

REVIEW: James Swanton in Irving Undead, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, October 10 to 12 2019

IT starts with a dusty recording of Henry Irving drifting across the York Medical Society carpet.

This is the sound of “the strangest actor who ever lived”, and to a modern ear, the voice is indeed strange and deathly as Irving negotiates a speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

A door opens to the side of the stage, and what first emerges is a thin, long finger of actor-writer James Swanton, then all his digits curl round the door frame. Enter the gaunt Swanton, as spindly of leg as Irving notoriously was.

James Swanton in his role as Henry Irving, ” the strangest actor who ever lived”

As ever, whether playing Dracula, Dickens’ Bill Sikes, Frankenstein’s Creature, Lucifer or now Irving, Swanton brings an angular physicality to his bravura performance, wherein he seems to consume the character he plays, so wholly does he take on the part.

As we know too from his solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol last winter, he is a wonderfully eloquent storyteller, his writing full of intelligence, understanding, wit and drama.

Here Swanton’s Irving relates the story of his life and death, not least how Bram Stoker, his business manager for 20 years is said to have immortalised him by writing the horror story Dracula. The pain behind the mask for the “undead” and restless Irving is that Dracula is now better known than theatre’s first knight: a case of being out for the Count.

“I hope to do the old man justice,” said James Swanton, as Henry Irving confronted his demons in Swanton’s one-man show

Obsessive in his art, ill-fated in love, fearful of scandal, Irving specialised in playing mad monarchs, guilt-stricken murderers and the Devil, delivered with a Gothic, macabre air that apparently “petrified 19th Century London”. Swanton delights in playing Irving’s Romeo, a frightening performance from the early master of horror acting met with derogatory reviews that Irving reads out with a glum glower.

Swanton contends that Irving was a deeply subversive figure with a work, work, work ethic, driven by some mightier force. All this comes through in an intense performance, underscored with admiration for his fellow traveller along theatre’s pit-laden path.

“I hope to do the old man justice,” said Swanton in advance. He certainly does that, while adding to his stock as a formidable talent in his own right.

Charles Hutchinson

John O’Connor re-creates a Dickens of a reading of A Christmas Carol…minus the raw egg

John O’Connor as Mr Charles Dickens, presenting A Christmas Carol at the De Grey Rooms Ballroom

IN 1858, Charles Dickens came to Yorkshire to give public readings of A Christmas Carol, including in York on September 10 that year.

From next Tuesday to Saturday, in the De Grey Rooms Ballroom, next to York Theatre Royal, John O’Connor invites you to “experience what it must have been like to have been in the audience” as he transforms himself into Mr Dickens to present a heart-warming evening with the author himself, in the spirit of Christmas past, present and future.

“It’s one of the richest stories in English literature,” says John, whose one-man show will be staged by the European Arts Company at 7.45pm nightly. “Like all great works of art, it’s infinitely adaptable and has never fallen out of fashion.

“Its themes of loneliness, compassion, forgiveness, social inequality, money, family and redemption are as relevant today as in 1843 when it was written. As soon as the story was published, several stage versions appeared on the London stage and this tradition has continued to the present day. From Doctor Who to The Muppets, the story is constantly being reinterpreted for new audiences in interesting ways.”

What makes O’Connor’s performance distinctive amid the annual glut of A Christmas Carol shows? “Charles Dickens came to York and gave a public performance of A Christmas Carol on September 10 1858. What must it have been like to have been in the audience 161 years ago? By all accounts, Dickens completely captivated everyone lucky enough to see him. In this show, we try and recreate that experience for the audience,” says John.

“Our production takes place in the De Grey Rooms, a beautiful Georgian ballroom that provides the perfect backdrop. Many adaptations tend to overplay the sentimental side of A Christmas Carol, but it’s also a very dark story written as a cry of anger against the Poor Laws, which unjustly punished the dispossessed of society, especially children, through the workhouse system.

“It’s fascinating to hear Dickens balance the sentimental with the fantastical and the political to create an incredibly powerful piece of theatre.”

Although we tend to think of poverty as being a 19th-century problem, the charity Barnardo’s estimates that more than three million children live in poverty in Britain today.

“This is why we’re raising money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity to help transform the lives of modern-day Tiny Tims this Christmas.,” says John. “Our show is an authentic glimpse into the heart of the story, in a gorgeous atmospheric setting, and in aid of a good cause.”

By O’Connor taking on the guise of Charles Dickens, his audience receives the story directly from the author himself. “At its best, the show is like a conversation with the author,” he says. “We use Dickens’s original public-reading script, so it’s fascinating to see what he highlights in the telling of it and how he takes us on Scrooge’s redemptive journey.”

Unlike Dickens, however, Euroepan Arts Company’s production has the benefit of modern theatre techniques, such as lighting, sound effects and video projections, to take the audience on a transformative trip.

“It’s a very emotional journey and the audience laughs and cries along with the author himself,” says John, who will be dressed in Dickens mode and plays all the characters.

“I’ve researched and studied the way Dickens performed it and use some of these techniques in the show,” he says. “However, there are also some authentic parts of Dickens’s performance that I’ve chosen to leave out.

“For example, how he prepared for a reading: two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, a glass of sherry with a raw egg beaten into it!”

European Arts Company presents John O’Connor in A Christmas Carol, De Grey Rooms Ballroom, York Theatre Royal, York, December 17 to 21, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk 

Mark Hird picks favourite Scrooge as Pick Me Up musical prepares to fly

Bah Humbug! Mark Hird as Scrooge in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Scrooge The Musical. Picture: David Harrison

WHO is your favourite Scrooge? Albert Finney? Tim Curry? Patrick Stewart? George C Scott? Lionel Barrymore on the radio?

Maybe Michael Caine in The Muppets’ Christmas Carol? Jim Carrey? Or how about Jim Backus as the voice of Mister Magoo in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, or even Bill Murray’s Frank Cross in Scrooged?

Mark Hird, who plays Scrooge from tomorrow (November 26) in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Scrooge The Musical at the Grand Opera House, York, has no hesitation in picking Alastair Sim from Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film, Scrooge.

“I loved his performance! He was unashamedly nasty, but there was something in his eyes, that glint, that made you think there’s something going on there,” says Mark, who is leading Robert Readman’s cast, fresh from directing this autumn’s Pick Me Up musical, Monster Makers, at 41 Monkgate.

He now adds Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge to a diverse Pick Me Up CV that includes Captain Mainwaring inDad’s Army, Colonel Pickering inMy Fair Lady and Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, and he is particularly enjoying performing the songs in Leslie Bricusse’s musical.

“Maybe we need another Dickens for this age,,” says Mark Hird, who sees the abiding resonance in A Christmas Carol

“The songs really help in bringing out Scrooge’s thoughts, whether in the 1970 film musical with Albert Finney or the stage version with six extra songs. You discover new things every time you do it.” says Mark.

“I’ve had the chance to play some really cold, nasty characters: there’s nothing redeemable about Inspector Wormold in Betty Blue Eyes or The Beadle in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, but, on the other side, I also get to play all the ridiculously loveable characters, like Captain Mainwaring, Uncle Fester and Colonel Pickering.

“So, in many ways, Scrooge is more interesting because he goes on a journey from one to the other, and it’s really fun as an actor to make that transition, but also not to make him black and white. There are reasons in his past for some of the things he’s doing.”

Time for a quick refresher course: based on Dickens’s Victorian cautionary tale A Christmas Carol, Scrooge tells the tale of old miser Ebenezer Scrooge on the night he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. Here that tale is told in an “all-singing, all-dancing, all-flying” show.

“I haven’t flown on stage before, but I’m not scared of heights,” says Mark Hird

All-flying, Mark?  “Yes, we have some flying in this show. Scrooge has to fly with Rory Mulvihill’s Ghost of Christmas Present, and Tony Froud’s Jacob Marley will float above the stage to sing his big number,” says the Scotsman.

“I haven’t flown on stage before, but I’m not scared of heights. I love walking the hills in Scotland.”

Joining Mark in the company will be Alan Park’s Bob Cratchit. “The advantage we have doing the show at the Grand Opera House, rather than our other home at 41 Micklegate, is that you can put on a big spectacle, but you can also have intimate scenes too, such as Cratchit and Tiny Tim’s scenes,” says Alan.

“But the experience of performing at 41 Micklegate develops that intimate form of acting, which you can then take into the bigger theatre,” says Mark.

He and Park see the contemporary resonance in Dickens’s story. “It’s amazing to look back at the impact Dickens’s book had on politicians, as well as general readers, concerning the inequality of working conditions for the working classes, and the cruelty Cratchit faces. That strikes a chord today,” says Mark.

” it’s really fun as an actor to make Scrooge’s transition, but also not to make him black and white,” says Mark Hird

“Cratchit thinks ‘this is my lot; I will make the most of what I have’, and he sees Scrooge as alien to his world, because that’s how society is,” says Alan.

“No politician will change Scrooge, but the three Ghosts do have an impact, which makes him change himself.

“But what’s more depressing is that if A Christmas Carol were to be played out in modern times, I’m not sure there would be sympathy for the Bob Cratchits of this world.”

“Maybe we need another Dickens for this age,” says Mark. “If the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come brought Dickens to 2019, I think he would be horrified.”

“You could argue that we need the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to visit some of our politicians right now,” says Alan, as the winter-of-discontent General Election fast approaches.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s Scrooge The Musical runs from Tuesday, November 26 to Sunday, December 1 at Grand Opera House, York. Performances: 7.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday; 2.30pm, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.

Charles Hutchinson