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Humbug Galore

Humbug Galore

Christmas may have been and gone but the 2020 Christmas shows open in just over ten months – not long in production terms so let’s think about A Christmas Carol, numerous versions of which are available for performance by both amateur and professional companies.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by David Edgar and performed by the RSC (2017-18). Photo: Manuel Harlan

When Charles Dickens published his ‘little Christmas book’ in 1843 it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage,” writes Piers Torday in an author’s note to his 2019 adaptation for Wilton’s Music Hall. And Michael Billington notes in a 2017 Guardian review of David Edgar’s version for the RSC that there have been 250 film and stage versions in the last seventy years alone.

So why has this story of a Christmas-hating miser, redeemed by the visits of three ghosts who eventually lead him to bond warmly with others, so perennially popular? Why has Scrooge become one of those rare literary characters who has a presence in language and culture which goes way beyond the novella which produced him?

“It makes good theatre because the novel itself is so well structured – the classic five acts,” observes David Edgar adding that A Christmas Carol is very different from the weakly structured Nicholas Nickleby which he adapted for RSC in 1980. “But I think Dickens is like Shakespeare in that the work changes age by age as people respond in different ways. In the mid-Nineteenth Century the focus was the ‘invention’ – more a case of urbanisation, I think – of Christmas. Then, in the 1870s, it became a transformation story, caught up in the religious revival with analogies between the Cratchits and the Holy Family.”

A Christmas Carol, adapted by David Edgar and performed by the RSC (2017-18). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Edgar continues: “The films of the 1930s saw it as a metaphor for capitalism and the famous Alistair Sim film (1951) gave us a Freudian adaptation. And there was a hippy version (1971) with Albert Finney as Scrooge which wasn’t very good although it was an interesting idea. I suppose my 2017 A Christmas Carol is the austerity version.”

An amorphous text, then. Piers Torday approached it through his discovery that although Dickens campaigned for the rights of women his treatment of his own wife Catherine, mother of his ten children, was shocking by any standards anywhere and at any time. He wrote hideously cruel and unfeeling things about her to his friends in letters and tried to have her committed to an asylum while he enjoyed an affair with Ellen Ternan. “And that led me to consider the women in A Christmas Carol,” he says, observing that almost every character is male and the women – Mrs Cratchit, Fred’s wife, Scrooge’s sister, and so on, are pretty marginal.

Torday’s version which sat very atmospherically in the Victorian gem which is Wilton’s Music Hall, presents Marley and Scrooge as dead brothers-in-law. The business is now in the hands of the misanthropic Fan Scrooge, widow of the former and sister of the latter. It’s a very neat way of feminising the whole story and I Ioved her feisty irascibility and irritation with the ghost of her husband who haunts her at the beginning. It puts a very delightfully fresh spin on one of the most familiar stories in literature and drama. “It had to be a lot more than just gender-blind casting,” says Torday.
Of course this wasn’t the first female Scrooge although it went much further than its predecessors. Take the one directed by Guy Retallack at Bridge House Theatre Penge last Christmas. My three-star thoughts on 28 November for Musical Theatre Review: “Rachel Izen plays the reformed curmudgeonly miser as a man. I had assumed that we were going to see Mrs Scrooge which would have been an interesting take on the narrative. Izen takes a while to get going and is occasionally moving, but for much of the show’s duration she is unconvincing. She listens well, though. Her strongest moments are when she is watching and reacting to scenes being acted out by the others.” And there have been other productions with women in the lead role.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne and performed at the Old Vic, London (Rhys Ifans, 2017).
Photo: Helen Maybanks

“I was especially interested in this angle because before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1857, everything a woman owned passed to her husband on marriage,” Torday tells me. “The man could do anything he liked with her money and property without consulting her. And there was no divorce other than by act of parliament which meant she was trapped.” No wonder Torday’s Fan Scrooge has an axe to grind. And his concerns have an appealingly contemporary feel.

Edgar meanwhile, always a political playwright, focuses on the plight of children. “Of course it wasn’t the first time a playwright had used Dickens as an onstage voice,” he says, “but I was very interested in the story of how this novel came to be written so I used Dickens, outraged by the newly published The Physical and Moral Condition of the Children and Young Persons Employed in Mines, in conversation with his friend John Forster.” In Edgar’s play, Dickens initially wants to write a pamphlet in response to the government report. Forster persuades him to do it fictionally and gradually the two men merge into the eight-hander drama.

It still bites. That’s why it works. There are children in poverty and let down by the system in 2020 along with modern awareness of how easily children can be trafficked, radicalised or abused. But there’s also another modern anxiety movingly tucked into Edgar’s play.

At the end, Scrooge, now in his 70s, is beginning to fail in health. Having, by then, been pater familias at family events for many years he is now frail and forgetful. The adult Tiny Tim has to help him with a speech. “That was inspired by something which happened at my uncle’s Golden Wedding party,” recalls Edgar. “Suddenly, having spoken fluently without notes all his adult life he was floundering until his daughter-in-law very gently helped him. Dementia is a massive issue now that we’re all living longer.”

Another recent version of A Christmas Carol is the one Jack Thorne did for The Old Vic in 2017. It uses a narrator, lots of carols, and a cast of fifteen to tell the story without straying too far from the novel. There’s a lot of joy, tradition and ‘feel good’ in this take on the work. It’s frisky but doesn’t run with any sort of agenda of its own – unlike Steven Knight’s recent three-episode version for the BBC shown in the run up to Christmas.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne and performed at the Old Vic, London (Paterson Joseph, 2018).
Photos: Manuel Harlan

Every inch a relatively scary ghost story (in contrast to most of the stage versions which never forget they’re family Christmas shows along with everything else) this leisurely take on a pretty short novel presents a youngish quite personable Scrooge in the shape of Guy Pearce. “As far from Alastair Sim as you could get,” writes Knight in The Sunday Times.

“I felt it important to look at the character of Scrooge a little more closely,” he continues, adding that he had “no intention of vandalising the original.” He was, however, determined “in this post-post-post Freudian age” to ask why Scrooge is as he is – a man who uses blunt taboo language and spends a lot of time gazing into space, thinking meaningfully – and later some pretty dark secrets are revealed. Most viewers either loved it or loathed it.

One interesting point Knight makes is that Dickens was constrained by the censor. He could only hint at unmentionable things. He cites Fagin and his coven of boys in Oliver Twist as an example. “I set about finding moments in the book [A Christmas Carol] when Dickens might be giving us a glimpse of why Scrooge became as he did,” he says.

So take your pick. A Christmas Carol is, and has always been, a story with a universal voice. We are all haunted by the ghosts of past, present and future – and not just at Christmas. And if you’re thinking of staging it as a play there’s a wealth of choice available…

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Piers Torday (2019)



A Christmas Carol (RSC stage version)
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by David Edgar (2017)



A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Jack Thorne (2017)


All three adaptations are published and licensed by Nick Hern Books.
Enquire at or by calling 020 8740 4953.

Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Education (Rita’s in the Pink, and Frank needs another drink)

Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Education (Rita’s in the Pink, and Frank needs another drink)

Sardines possibly conducted the last interview that Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson did before the all-encompassing Coronavirus crisis meant their tour was swiftly cut short.
We sat down with the pair (at a much bigger distance than usual) in Guildford after their matinee performance on 12 March… and the next day everything changed.
However, with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita being such a seminal play, as well as extremely popular with amateur companies, we thought you may still want to read our conversation. Here it is…

How is your return to Educating Rita and the touring 40th anniversary production going?
ST: “We did it last year for eighteen dates. Then, we realised this year marks the fortieth anniversary and we were asked to do more. It’s very hard to resist when you have such a security net in Willy Russell’s beautiful play. It’s actually all her fault…”
JJ: “…Yes it is; all my fault. I’ve done Rita before – in a different production in a different theatre – and me and Stephen crossed paths while rehearsing for different things. Over a pint we started talking about Rita, and I said how I’d love a longer run at it, having only done it for a week. I told him that actually he’d make a really good Frank, so he went away, read the script and, after shockingly realising he was the right age, it all came about from there. Ha ha!”

Does it surprise you, how popular this play remains after 40 years?
ST: “It’s interesting. You’d think that things would have changed after forty years but, sadly, they haven’t. It’s all still very relevant. You kind of wish things would change for the better but I guess it’s that universal theme of someone getting a second chance. People love that.”
JJ: “Plus I think it’s been in people’s lives for so long, affectionately so, you end up with these really strong relationships with Frank and Rita – to the point where they’re almost like relatives. A lot of people turn out because it’s been part of their lives for so long. Willy writes such amazing characters; honest and human, for performers and audiences.”
ST: “He’s absolutely delved into what he knows. He was a hairdresser himself, then went back into education when he started teaching. And the writing started after that, so it’s a perfect marriage of what he knows.”
“People also have a great deal of affection for the film. In fact we overheard a husband telling his wife that this play was based on the film. There are a lot of audiences who need reminding that this was a play originally, with just the two characters in the one room. And we follow them on this academic year, seeing how reliant they become on one another.”

The relationship between Frank and Rita also suggests a parallel between this play and Pygmalion?
ST: “Yes, and I think people do recognise that. It really is very well crafted. Mind you Willy said he didn’t give much thought to the books Rita reads…”
JJ: “The quotes are so elegant though, like the William Blake poem that she recites. It’s about the end of Eden, the end of Paradise; and that’s when their relationship starts to break down…”
ST: “…and all the rules of ‘tragedy’ apply to Frank. The warnings that he can’t see, he’s describing his own life and he isn’t aware of it.”
JJ: “It’s very, very clever, and there are many layers to it.”
ST: “Willy was with us in rehearsals every week, which was a real treat. He is a bit of a legend, and to an awful lot of people I think. Certainly as I was growing up as a teen, he was that first voice that spoke to me. He told me that even though he’d set the play in the world of academia, he wanted to make it successful to everyone. He wanted his mum to understand it.”

Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in EDUCATING RITA.
Photo: Nobby Clark

Working Class

JJ: “Like Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine, he’s definitely coming at it from the working class angle. I think Stephen and I both read it in our teens at about the same age, although from different generations. I’m a working Geordie actress and Rita is the first character for me who did have a working class voice. It’s a big conversation at the moment; as an actress I don’t see myself on television or feel represented in theatre. Rita is definitely that one character of whom you can say, ‘Actually, maybe there is a place for me in theatre. If people are writing these characters in then I can play them, and relate to them. It was incredibly exciting. And then you move on to Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine – and you say, ‘Oh my God, Shirley Valentine’s just like me mum.’ It’s really empowering when you see yourself being represented.’ Rita definitely did that with me, as she did with a lot of other actresses and a lot of other people who just enjoy theatre; they all feel exactly the same about her.”

Your characters in the play are real opposites?
ST: “I think that’s what hooks the audience in; having these two diverse characters eventually come to need each other. These are always the best stage or screen relationships too. When they eventually find their way to each other it’s a much more solid bond which they’ve achieved, by working against everything that society has put against them to begin with. So the closer they get, you know that it is one forged in something really solid.”

Is the 1983 film an obstacle or a crutch when it comes to performing?
JJ: “I haven’t seen the film in a while although it is one of my firm favourites. Plus I’m a huge Julie Walters fan. She also played it onstage before it was shot. She was an unknown at that time – although very successful – so it was a bit of a chance really, and that’s what I think they’ve done with me. I’m not well known like Stephen is. So, I think I’ve got that in common with the ‘Julie Walters’ from the early 80s. Because she has made such a lasting impression on me, I can’t afford to reference her as I’d end up doing one big impersonation. So I can’t watch the film at the moment. I would definitely struggle to make it my own.
“Also, I’m a Geordie while Rita’s a Scouser so there’s bound to be a little crossover with the accent but, at the end of the day, even if you get a bit of flack, as well as an actress I’m just human and you do your best don’t you? I don’t think I give her a ‘bad’ accent, and the show is strong enough anyway. Even Claire Sweeney got a weird review about her accent and she’s actually from Liverpool! It’s hit-and-miss, but a great challenge. It be boring otherwise”
ST: “There is such fondness for the film and, from my perspective, was one of Michael Caine’s most famous roles. Plus it introduced the world to Julie Walters, which we’re all terribly grateful for. I think if people have seen the film, to then see it done live – which does include most of the words that are in the film – is a real treat. People also get lost in the fact that the play is just a two-hander. Willy said he didn’t really like expanding his play for the film to introduce more people such as other students at the university and Rita’s flatmate, Trish, plus locations like outside Frank’s house etc. But the nub of the film is the same as the play though.”

Having made a lot of TV, do you both feel at home on the stage right now?
ST: “Yes, absolutely. The TV stuff is actually very bitty, and it’s your life in many technicians’ hands. Depending on what locations are available, you can be doing a scene from the beginning of a piece, or the middle, or the end, out of sequence… and it’s up to everybody else to gel it all together. In theatre you have more control in terms of telling the story from beginning to end. Also, especially with a comedy, you rely on the audience to laugh and help you through it. They teach you when to put your foot on the accelerator and when to hold back. The beauty of touring, as well, means you spend a week in each place and it’s different every time, which helps keep it fresh. Even a matinee and an evening will give you completely different reactions.”
JJ: “Definitely, although there are a lot of actors who don’t. They get some TV or film and step out of theatre once they become established. I think Stephen’s really committed to keeping it all going, and I know how much he really enjoys it. I share the stage with him every day and it’s obvious to me how passionate he is about performing live. For me, it’s a bit like being an adrenaline junky; I get a real kick out of audiences. I learn the play from them, hearing them laugh, the applause. So it feels like a communal thing, an atmosphere that I really get a kick out of. And I know Stephen feels the same way. He’s an amazing actor; I saw him do Christmas Carol at The Old Vic where he brought some real humanity to Scrooge – which is not something I’d seen done before. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you can always learn something from watching good actors perform. I might not nick something straight away, but in ten years’ time I might think, ‘I’m gonna do that!’ Ha ha!
“It’s all about sharing and learning. Up in the North East where I’m from we have quite a small community and you end up knowing everybody really well, so you end up knowing exactly what people will be like to perform with.”

Stephen Tompkinson, Willy Russell and Jessica Johnson.
Photo: Nobby Clark

Did either of you have any amateur experience in pre-professional?
ST: “Because I was lucky enough to start working straight out of Central, the only thing I would have done before that was probably at school. There was a teacher there who was prepared to stay behind and put on plays, which is what got me hooked in. When I’m performing in this play I think of some of the good teachers as well as the bad ones. They would come across as just being stuck in a rut, which is what Frank is, and not enjoying having to teach to formula… formulated answers where there is no real room for individualism or flair.”
JJ: “Just youth theatre for me really. I did a year with the National Youth Theatre, which was very expensive for a working class family, but an amazing experience. It was my first time in London. I did mainly workshops and never got to perform with the NYT but I do know that the people who do take part are extraordinarily good. I saw Dancing at Lughnasa, Biloxi Blues and Oedipus, which was amazing. The rest of the time was spent performing whenever I could.
“My mum and dad used to have a guest house right next to the Sunderland Empire so we’d get a lot of performers coming to stay with us – and we’d end up getting lots of tickets. basically I spent a great deal of my youth going to the theatre and seeing ballets, comedians, cabaret as well as shows and plays. My dad built this hideous bar in one of the upstairs rooms, with palm trees and mirrors. And all the actors would come back for drinks. So, being around that as well as going to the theatre was really amazing, and they were all so interesting to me. Why wouldn’t I want to be one! I did walk away from it for a while, as I was really into my athletics while at senior school. That is until someone handed me a play one day which made me think. It’s a really difficult industry, especially when you come from a working class background. You feel you really need to earn your place at the table.
“But I’m not trained; I learned everything on the job, like the old-fashioned rep theatre way. I got a feature film in my early twenties, then did some TV and more film, tried London for a little while before enrolling at Newcastle College to do a degree. I did that because I started feeling a little out of my depth, but afterwards came out all guns blazing. I even set up my own theatre company.
“I know that Stephen won a big acting prize to do with BBC Radio around the time he left Central, and so he started to do a lot of radio. He performed hundreds of radio plays and got to work with some amazing actors and, as it was radio, it was very voice-focused. An amazing place for all kinds of writers, and training. He learned a lot at Central but during that time in radio he must have picked up so much. You don’t always get the luxury of having the time to read, but Stephen did and he proved it over time. He’s a very experienced and intelligent actor.”

How important was training for you as part of your career path?
ST: “Very important. My time at Central came straight after my A-levels. I did a Theatre Studies A-level which included The Crucible that year. The teacher decided to put it on and I got to play John Proctor – the first big, serious role I’d ever done up to that point. Mum and Dad thought that it’s all very well to audition for drama school but the odds are stacked against you from the start. Why not go to university first, get an English or Drama degree, and have something to fall back on, possibly teaching? But after they came to see The Crucible they said, ‘Scrub that; if you want to audition then go for it.’
“Central probably had one of the best reputations at the time and I got in on my first audition. Then for three years it felt a bit like an Aladdin’s cave; I was discovering all sorts… and lots of things I didn’t know about. I got a lot of training which I still keep with me now. I certainly remember it very, very fondly.
“Mind you, it’s also true that I’ve probably learned just as much on the job since leaving drama school, such as how to sustain things for a long run.
“You’re always learning and always training. It keeps you up and buzzing. The very nature of the job means we keep discovering new things. And performing all takes energy; she’s [Jessica] bouncing around the place while I’m putting lots of energy into trying to look like I’ve got no energy!”


Please check on the show website for any rearranged tour dates, although it does rather look like they’ve decided to scrap all outstanding stops.