A Christmas Carol: The Making of a Legend
Behind the scenes with the Open House Theatre Company for its début production of Charles Dickens’ holiday favourite
The whitewashed walls are peeling in places. A table laden with half-full mugs and empty pots of coffee stands opposite the door. Windows, through which the sky was already darkening, stretch all the way to the far wall. Against this wall stands a clothes rail so laden with skirts, shirts and jackets that it’s sagging in the middle.
The Open House Theatre Company has made this room its home for the next two weeks. I am here, on their third full day of rehearsals, for a glimpse of A Christmas Carol as it comes together, to be the company’s debut production. The final scene of the play is about to begin – the only one they have yet to run through.
It is difficult to conjure the magic and misery of Victorian London in this room, with the actors in their civvies. The only nod to Christmas is a blue IKEA bag by my feet, brimming with garlands and holly.
But then, this is theatre. Eric Lomas, the play’s director and Open House’s Executive Director, turns to the cast: "Are we ready to act?"
Casting the spell
I am transported to a world I couldn’t envision a moment before. Siblings Henry and Ellen Davidson, played by Oliver Schneeberger and Julia C. Thorne, stand side by side downstage left. Henry holds a red hardback in his hands. "The end!" he triumphantly announces, snapping the book shut. "That can’t be the end!" retorts his sister. "Give me the book!" A back-and-forth tussle ensues, voices increasing in pitch and feet scuffling across the wooden floor.
"What on earth is going on here?" A booming voice – belonging to West End veteran John Harwood – silences the bickering. The siblings cower with shoulders hunched as Granddad Davidson stares them down. He moves towards a wooden chest, propped open atop a white metal chair and – "No, no, forget that, don’t notice the chest yet."
The spell is broken. Lomas springs up from crouching on the floor, where his clipboard is spread out in front of him. Every few minutes, someone chips in with an idea or an improvement to the stage directions.
Deputy stage manager Linda Starodub sits next to me, taking minutes of the changes. "I’ve learned not to write things down for the first twenty minutes," she says confidentially, "or my eraser works furiously. It’s fascinating to watch."
Lomas and artistic director Alan Burgon have devised a new script, which infuses the modern with the traditional. The traditional tale is set against a modern-day family, with parallels in the characters and their stories, coming together in this final scene. It’s an ambitious approach, and with a cast of only six, it means each actor (with the exception of Harwood) plays at least four roles: a real ensemble piece.
Adding to the masterpiece
Part of the appeal of A Christmas Carol is its familiarity. For many it’s a festive staple, like presents under the tree or stockings hanging on the mantle place. First published in 1843, Dickens’ novella follows miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates people and especially hates Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the ghost of his former business partner visits him, warning him to change his ways before he’s doomed to the same miserable afterlife as himself. Scrooge is taken on a journey of self-discovery and transformation as he’s visited by three further ghosts: Christmas past, present and "yet to come". Although set against a gritty backdrop of Victorian industrial poverty, the moral heart of the story is rich with warmth and joy.
But who would have thought there was anything new to be added to Dickens? Melanie Preston, here playing Mrs. Fezziwig and four other characters, is an old hand of A Christmas Carol, having played in the yearly performance by the now sadly defunct International Theatre (IT) on and off since 1989. "In that time, I’ve done it all," she quips, "But in this particular production, with this concept, there are new angles to approach the characters on, thanks to Eric’s directing and ideas."
Besides Preston, several of the Open House gang have previous experience working on IT’s A Christmas Carol. Did they feel obliged to carry on the tradition? "Yes," Lomas nods emphatically. "News travelled round that the IT was closing and the majority of the calls were to ask: ‘Is A Christmas Carol going to go on?’"
The show will go on and expectations are high, says Lomas: "It’s important for us, because this is our debut production and we need to make a mark so people don’t say ‘Oh, it’s the IT with a new name!’"
Burgon agrees. "It’s something that the audience wants and if you didn’t take that opportunity on board, you wouldn’t be a very good businessman. But we don’t want to copy it. We want to put our stamp on something that is already well received and people want to receive well."
"And," Lomas chips in, "we want people to see it and say ‘Now I really can’t do without it next year!’"
The company thinks they know why the play is so relentlessly popular in Vienna. For Austrian audiences, it’s an invitation to celebrate a British Christmas. For expats, it’s a dose of nostalgia. And audiences come back for more, because it’s simply a great story. "It’s a happy time of year, something that’s inherent wherever you are. And I think that’s why A Christmas Carol works so well every single year."
Lomas checks his watch. Two weeks will pass in a flash, and they must get back to rehearsing and polishing the script. It’s whetted my appetite, and I’m eager to be whisked back to that enchanted world I have just had a glimpse of.
A Christmas Carol
3 – 23 Dec. 19:30 (no shows 4, 6 Dec.)
Matinees 8, 9, 16, 22 Dec, 16:00
Open House Theatre Company
Tickets: 0680 225 12 90
KIP Kunst im Prückel
1., Biberstrasse 2, at Stubentor