… Because some plays warrant more than a Facebook status.
It continues to give me bountiful pleasure to announce the return of Scrooge & Marley – the two-man production of A Christmas Carol that I adapted and performed in 2011. The new Scrooge & Marley will be running at the Waterloo East Theatre, South Bank, from 3rd to 22nd December. George Fouracres (né Potts) is my co-star (and this time, happily, co-adapter); Andrew Brock (who worked alongside Oli O’Shea in 2011) will direct. The production is being staged by Dippermouth, an up-and-coming theatre company founded by Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble (obscenely pleasant gentlemen and all-round good eggs). Additional details can be found on the Dippermouth website, the Waterloo East website, and my own self-laudatory interweb haunt.
Two years on, I can summon back the euphoria of the original – a euphoria crystallised in coming on for the bows, drenched in the sweat of some twenty intoxicating characters, to John Gardner’s ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’:
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
Like most songs about Christ, it’s a song about redemption. And I think it was redemption – in all sorts of forms – that made the original Scrooge & Marley such a purely enjoyable experience. That first production came when I was getting very disillusioned with acting (a not uncommon experience at Cambridge), and, in one cleansing hour, it turned everything around. Here was a story that brought uncomplicated joy to audiences, without pretending to any greater relevance or importance. That we were able to get away with this Christmas tale in early November seems to bear that out: regardless of the season, the story is life-enhancing. I’m not so disillusioned this time, but it’s again refreshing to wield some control over my acting destiny. When I played Scrooge at school – way back in 2005 – I had my first real sense of locating my theatrical niche. I hope the same may be true again.
Quite apart from my professional gripes, redemption is essential to the Carol. Dickens persistently returned to Christmas as a vehicle for conquering the ‘vague, unhappy loss or want of something’ that overshadowed his life. Dickens wrote such essays as ‘A Christmas Tree’ to come to terms with the pettifogging disappointments of life, most particularly mortality. Dickens’ Christmas is a lush and thriving memento mori: the ‘Lord, keep my memory green’ that forms the backbone of The Haunted Man. So painfully heartfelt are Dickens’ Christmas writings that they could bring a tear to a glass eye. How comforting to know that Dickens, in the end, managed to conquer death. He is as immortal as any writer can be.
I can relate to brittle old Jacob Marley as well – that immortal who comes to haunt Scrooge, and my character in the piece. Last year, an acerbic (read ‘gittish’) old pro told me that I didn’t convey much warmth, which would hold me back as an actor. Which is a terrible thing to say – like most unpleasant personal remarks, it sticks like a burr. Perhaps I don’t convey a great deal of warmth (I can’t deny I haven’t thought about that one), but that might itself prove helpful in creating a character more pinched and wicked than Scrooge. Pretty well the main point in Scrooge & Marley – as opposed to trotting out another serviceable Carol – is to give Marley his shot at redemption. A chance to go out in love. May we all be so lucky.
When I brood on cold actors, I instantly think of Christopher Lee. Those Lee performances that I count among my favourites – Rasputin, the Duc de Richleau, Lord Summerisle – are uncharacteristically hearty. It’s for his innumerable ‘cold fish’ portrayals that Lee is best known, ranging from the inhuman to the legitimately monstrous. As a personality, Lee is truly unreadable: indecipherably strange, strangely impressive. Lee, like M. R. James, radiates the sense of an astonishingly brilliant academic who fell in on the Gothic by accident. I have a great problem (bordering on a moral dilemma) with Lee disowning the horror films that made his name – it seems a rebuff to those, like me, who treasure up these films and hold them dear. Yet Lee has been so integral to my film-watching life, that I find myself stuck with him.
It’s in Lee’s friendship with Peter Cushing, his co-star in twenty-two films, that I’m reminded of Lee’s wonderful (and expertly hidden) humanity. Here’s a little of what Lee writes about Cushing in his autobiography:
… With varying commercial and critical success, but unvarying pleasure in working together, we knocked off a row of fantasy milestones. Most often I was the menace, and Peter was the force from academe, a savant, devoted to putting a stopper on me. As American golfers say of complementary partnerships, ‘We ham-and-egged it.’
He was the most tolerant of men, expressing for instance nothing but pleasure when I sang arias to him in our dressing-rooms. Only once did he say something that brought me up short. It was on the set of Horror Express … I went into a tirade about the food. ‘… I feel I’m going to die of this frightful food. This is a ghastly studio…’ A massive whinge. He looked at me and peeled his apple. He just said, ‘Well, there’s no good belly-aching about it, you know.’ That was about as severe as he could be. Coming from him, it was shattering.
He really was the gentlest and most generous of men. It could be said of him that he died because he was too good for this world.
The painful thing is that, armed with this knowledge, I suddenly feel very deeply for Lee. And I’m desperately sad that he may not have long for this world; his ninety-one years and increasingly frail appearance are a constant reminder. But why this sadness? He’s lived a long and full life, and still receives more recognition in ten minutes than most will receive in a lifetime. And I’ve no doubt he’s tired of simply wearing out (the same applied to his workaholic forbear Boris Karloff). The sadness comes from the knowledge that Lee once had a friend who he dearly loved. I’m reminded of Dickens in ‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older’:
We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!
A great friendship can humanise the coldest of men. The coldness is rarely the full story. A Cushing-Lee Scrooge & Marley would have been a sight to see.
Accordingly, it’s a delight to be working with friends on Scrooge & Marley. George Fouracres is my co-star. He, like me, was generically typed as one of Cambridge’s mad character men, although this played out differently for both of us. George found the ideal niche for his characters in sketch comedy and pantomime (which isn’t to devalue his other work: his Tiresias was a rare marvel). George is ideal for Scrooge because he is a superlative comic actor (the same held true for Alastair Sim). Meanwhile, my area was the grotesque: the shape-shifting, the distorted, the Caliban-esque. I only really hit my stride when the one-man plays set in, and this was an inherently self-isolating pursuit. George is all lightness: musical, elasticated, expert communicator of mesmeric intuitive rhythm. I am all heaviness: booming, growling, wildly undisciplined, but now and again hitting on something worthwhile (or so I very much hope). George is Ralph Richardson; I am Donald Wolfit. Fortunately, the free-wheeling form of Scrooge & Marley allows us to come together in a way that’s mutually beneficial. There’s a taste of the music hall, but set within a funereal and ghostly frame. There’s a place for both of us in this vision.
Instrumental to the vision is Andy Brock, one of the two or three best directors I’ve worked with. His visual style deserves a coinage; ‘Brocktian’ has a ring to it. It’s a rag-tag explosion of opulent decay: part Dutch Golden Age, part Arthur Rackham, all hand-made, anarchic encrustation. But there is an absolute substance to this style: Andy is all about the storytelling – and not in the disingenuous ‘play the truth of the moment!’ way that one so often hears parroted. And as an actor himself, a fantastically good one (his effervescent Lord Foppington and Sir Toby Belch linger in the memory), Andy is a godsend in ironing out all that can go wrong in a piece of this nature. We are blessed to have him on board.
Not that it’s worth getting too reverential about these things. (George, in particular, does not do reverence.) These friendships descend – ‘escalate’ is more appropriate – into the same euphoria in the end. Raising hell at the Midsummer Common funfair or in the Hughes Hall kitchens on the eve of graduation. Or loudly watching Aladdin in Tooting, accompanied by a majestic Italian takeaway, all three of us nursing disparate theatrical nicks and bruises. If we can convey one iota of this warmth on stage, we will have accomplished our task marvellously.
So: what can we promise in the new Scrooge & Marley? With any luck, everything that we couldn’t cram in the last time. Cambridge terms don’t allow for much in the way of research and development, but George and I are already engaged in an eclectic romp. We’ve visited a phony Victorian street and a real (?) haunted house, we’re taking in everything from blood-curdling supernaturalism (The Phantom Carriage, The Innocents, Kwaidan) to first-class schmaltz (The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life), and we’re reading as much Dickens as possible. The revised script is turning into an intertextual hay-ride, with strands of Dickens’ other works (novels, Christmas Books, short pieces) intermingling with the text of A Christmas Carol. Such is my abhorrence of hubristic adaptors, who seem convinced they write better dialogue than Dickens, that I’d much rather interpolate than invent. Everyone can take much greater ownership of the piece, making it particular to us as much as faithful.
I think that about does it for now. Enough of this Christmas malarkey! There is Halloween to get through yet…