An Interview with Charles Dickens…Actor John O’Connor

Filling the shoes of one of Britain’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and delivering one of his most famous novellas, ‘A Christmas Carol’,  to the crowd gathered must be a tremendous thrill, a thrill which can only presently be experienced by actor John O’Connor of European Arts Company.

Playing the role of Charles Dickens in European Arts Company production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at The Hazlitt Theatre on 16th December, John will bring the audience as close to Charles Dickens as they are ever likely to get and all for a good cause – the performance is given in support of the children’s charity Barnardos.

As well as a celebrated writer, Dickens was a well received performer – delivering ‘A Christmas Carol’ to audiences with great success and ‘A Christmas Carol’ was the first public performance Charles Dickens gave of his own work. He enacted it over 150 times and ‘the success was most wonderful and prodigious – perfectly overwhelming and astounding altogether!’ he said after the first night.

Following last year’s sell-out tour of European Arts Company’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ the show is back at The Hazlitt Theatre by popular demand and this Christmas you can experience what it must have been like to be in the audience of one of Dickens’s original performances!

Having faithfully recreated Dickens’s famous performance of his best-loved story, John has gone to great lengths to ensure authenticity.  John told me about how they have delivered an accurate staging: “The set is a recreation of what Dickens would have had on stage. I’ve had an exact replica of his famous reading desk built, for example, by a scenographer. The costume designer looked at old photographs of what Dickens wore and worked from there to create something beautiful and authentic.”

Audiences should not be disappointed for as John points out: “While we have been as faithful as possible, we also have the advantage of being able to use modern lighting and sound to create the ghostly atmosphere of the story. I did a lot of research into how Dickens performed certain sections, some of which I use.”

However, there is one area of authenticity which John strays from and that lies in the preparation Dickens used to indulge in before taking his place on stage. John told me: “This is how Dickens 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!”

With Christmas just around the corner it is extremely apt timing for the show and John injects his love of Dickens into ‘A Christmas Carol’: “I have always loved the story with a passion and always been fascinated by Dickens as a creative force of nature. The story was so popular in his day that, by rights, the author’s reading of it should have fallen flat. However, by all accounts Dickens was an extraordinary actor and his performances deepened people’s understanding of the tale and its characters.

Reading about these performances and the spell Dickens cast over the audience, it made me imagine what it was like to be there – it must have been extraordinary. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to explore this unique relationship between audience and author, and try to recreate some of the excitement. The show is a real labour of love and I’m sure that comes across in the telling.”

The story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is well known but, as John points out, you should expect something a little different in this production: “There have been countless adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ but this is Dickens’ own performance script. While other versions tend to play up the sentimentality of the story, it is actually a very dark tale.

Dickens was inspired to write it after visiting a ‘Ragged School’ in Clerkenwell and his anger at seeing first-hand the conditions of starving, illiterate street children so near the affluence of the City.”

This production also highlights the fact that poverty is not a status confined to Dickensian history.  John is clear on the facts: “While we tend to think of poverty as a 19th Century problem, the children’s charity Barnardo’s estimates that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK today. So in this time of continuing austerity, the story is as relevant as ever. When you come to see the show, you will be taken on a journey by the author himself. You will laugh with him, cry with him and hopefully take away from it the true value of Christmas.”

John has immersed himself in the world of theatre due to his love of acting and gave me an insight into his relationship with the art form: “It was Oscar Wilde who said ‘I love acting, it is so much more real than life.’ What he meant by that is that in the theatre life is compressed into intense moments that are more colourful than the everyday. That is what I love about it.

Usually, there are other actors on stage to bounce off but this is a one-man show so it’s about the direct relationship with the audience. The show is a conversation between the audience and Dickens during which I play something like 20 characters. It’s a bit of a tightrope act and incredibly rewarding. My job is to make the audience feel Christmassy which is a responsibility but a great privilege.”

This production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ coming to The Hazlitt on 16th December is the culmination of two years of fine tuning.  The production has been hugely popular, “We did it as a one-off two years ago at The Hazlitt and it sold out.” John explains: “It went so well that we thought we had to bring it out again the following year. So in 2016, the Arts Council generously funded a tour around the UK in support of the children’s charity Barnardo’s.”

European Arts Company present ‘A Christmas Carol’ performed by John O’Connor and directed by Peter Craze. To buy tickets book online, purchase from the box office or call the box office on Tel: 01622 758611

Supported by Arts Council England.