A Christmas Carol at Derby Theatre

The clock ticks for Scrooge Photo: Robert Day

The clock ticks for Scrooge Photo: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Nigel Powlson talks to the director and the star of Derby Theatre’s Christmas show – Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

A ghostly warning! Photo: Robert Day

A ghostly warning! Photo: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Charles Dickens didn't, as a 2017 film suggested, invent Christmas, but without him the festive traditions we know and enjoy today would certainly not be the same. Even the simple idea of wishing people 'Merry Christmas' was popularised by the Victorian writer in his 1843 novella that has been enduringly popular ever since. Indeed, A Christmas Carol has reinforced through the ages the idea of the 'season of goodwill' and strikes the same chord today as it did nearly 180 years ago.

This Christmas Derby Theatre will be giving us another chance to enjoy the Dickens' favourite - a revival of its successful 2014 production. That adaptation was written by Neil Duffield and directed by Sarah Brigham. This time it's Oliver O'Shea who takes over the reins. Oliver was Associate Director on Derby Theatre's previous Christmas productions Hansel and Gretel and Peter Pan, and he has been planning and working on this show since last Christmas.

He said: 'I began researching a year ago and re-read the book in February. It reminded me that Dickens helped create the idea of Christmas as a family time and also a period when we think about people who are less fortunate than ourselves. He didn't invent Christmas - but he certainly shaped our modern understanding of the season.

'The time in which Dickens was writing was known as the Hungry Forties - a period of austerity. I think it's now quite right to look at it from that point of view again as we have had a long period of austerity and Christmas is an expensive time for many people.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol - Credit: Archant

'There are very few stories that have had the same impact over such a long period of time and even if they haven't read the book, nearly everyone is familiar with the story. This production is the same adaptation as in 2014 and some of the original team are back so audiences will recognise the look and feel of the show but it will have a different quality to it as we are not recreating it footstep-by-footstep. It's great to be able to welcome new creatives who haven't worked at Derby Theatre before, alongside people who were involved in the original production.'

Three teams of local young actors will be joining the cast, something that is an integral part of the theatre's Christmas Show.

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Oliver said: 'Derby Theatre is a learning theatre and the work with young people in the community is extensive. Every Christmas under Sarah's leadership we have had a young company involved, which is an amazing opportunity for them.'

The director is also conscious of the fact that some of the children in the audience will be coming to the theatre for the very first time: 'It's often a young person's first introduction to theatre at Christmas so as a director you feel a responsibility to do a good job and encourage them to return.

Keeping time! Photograph from the 2014 production

Keeping time! Photograph from the 2014 production - Credit: Archant

'A trip to the theatre is often an important part of people's Christmas traditions. It's about coming together and the shared live experience and spending time as a family, which is also a big part of what Dickens' vision of Christmas is all about.

'For the cast, it's their Christmas as well and we will be creating memories together as a company. A big part of our Christmas will be with audiences at the theatre and we want it to be a memorable experience.'

When Scrooge topped the Christmas Pop Chart

Throughout the annals of pop chart history, having the number one single at Christmas has been the most sought-after prize. The biggest artists of each era have chased, but not always succeeded in reaching, the top spot in the charts on 25th December. But for those who have triumphed, lasting fame is guaranteed.

Alongside the likes of Slade, Band Aid, Boney M and Shakin' Stevens is Gareth Williams, who will this year be playing Ebenezer Scrooge on stage in Derby Theatre's A Christmas Carol.

Gareth earned an unexpected slice of pop success when a touring company he was part of in the early 1980s created a production called One Big Blow out of which sprang an a capella group known as the Flying Pickets. They released a cover version of Yazoo's hit 'Only You', which held off stiff competition to become the Christmas chart-topper of 1983 - staying at No. 1 for five weeks.

Gareth said: 'That was an accidental detour from the acting career for all of us when that happened. Which was great fun and I was with Flying Pickets for around seven years.

'We were jogging along quite nicely as a cabaret band and then suddenly the record took off and it transformed us. It was a hit all over Europe and I had a phone call early one morning from Radio Helsinki asking me how it felt to be No. 4 in Finland!

'It gives you great confidence and when you go to auditions and people say they don't want you then you tell yourself: 'What do they know? They have never had a No 1 hit.' It's a good thing to have under your belt.'

More recently you can see Gareth playing the violin in Mike Leigh's latest film Peterloo - all part of his varied career.

He said: 'I started in small scale touring shows where we arrived in a transit where you turn up, put the set up, do the play, take the set down and move on. I have done a lot of big tours in musicals, a couple of West End shows - every job is different and that's the beauty of it.'

And next up for Gareth is Scrooge, a role he's really looking forward to.

'I did it once before many years ago in a low budget production and I'm very excited about it this time. It's lovely because you start off with all the grumpy stuff which is always fun to do and then there's this revelation of how life can be better which leads to ten minutes of pure joy at the end where he's jumping about as a new man. It's a great role to play.

'At the audition we talked about Scrooge not just being grumpy at the start but thinking about how he had become that grumpy in the first place. I'm looking forward to exploring that because it's all right just being miserable but it's much more interesting if you can convey why he's like that.'

A host of famous actors have played the role on TV, stage and screen including the likes of Alistair Sim in a classic 1950s film version, Patrick Stewart in his acclaimed one-man stage show, Jim Carrey in animated form and Michael Caine taking on the muppets in a much-loved film.

Gareth said: 'I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol recently and I was very impressed with Michael Caine. He's younger than you would think Scrooge should be and he underplays it very nicely which was a good lesson and very helpful to watch. It's always good to nick things that other people have done!

'Our production is arranged for a cast of actor-musicians so it will be all-singing, all-dancing, all-playing which is always great fun to do and means you are totally immersed in it.

'It's a wonderful show to do. There's a lot of humour in it as there are in all the pantomimes you get at this time of year. I love pantos but this tells a Christmas story a lot better.'

And what does Gareth think is the secret to A Christmas Carol's enduring nature?

'It's a story of how people can change and how in a wicked world they can be transformed and change lives for the better for the good of other people. That's an eternal story that we want to hear at Christmas.'

Gareth will be making his first stage appearance in Derby but he has been to the theatre before.

'I have only been once before in the 1970s when my wife was working there. It had just been refurbished, including new seating, and there was a gala night of the show to celebrate. All the builders had been invited and the auditorium collapsed halfway through.'

This time Gareth hopes that if he brings the house down it will be in the more traditional manner! u

A Christmas Carol is at Derby Theatre from Friday, 29th November to Saturday, 4th January. Tickets from £12.50.

At Derby Studio, Hiccup Theatre is staging a new version of Little Red Riding Hood from 4th December to 4th January, featuring puppetry, fantastic storytelling, a girl with attitude, a wolf with an appetite, amazing live music and original songs!

Box office: 01332 593939