Wednesday 4 October 2023

Haunted by the women he mistreated, Charles Dickens' carefully managed image as a family man starts to unravel: Clare Norburn & The Telling's latest concert play, What the Dickens!

Photo: Sisi Burn
Clare Norburn and her company, The Telling, have become known for their concert plays, presenting drama about Medieval, Reniassance and Baroque figures alongside music of their period including Gesualdo, Hildegard of Bingen, Galileo and Purcell. 

For their latest adventure, the company has moved to the 19th century and Norburn's What the Dickens! places Charles Dickens under the microscope.

As Norburn explains: 

"In What the Dickens? I’ve reimagined Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, taking inspiration from the secrets of Dickens' life: his secret mistress, his terrible treatment of his wife and his early life as a boy working in a factory which made shoe blacking, of which he was deeply ashamed. I have also drawn on how unwell and febrile he was in his final years: he put so much energy into his theatrical readings that he would often collapse afterwards in the wings. So I have used all those elements to overlay the familiar story we all know of A Christmas Carol, with Dickens himself being forced to re-evaluate his life and the impact of his actions."

The plot is set on Dickens' final Christmas Eve, 1869. Against his doctor’s orders, he gives one of his acclaimed theatrical readings of A Christmas Carol, but from the moment the lights go down, his life becomes strangely entangled with that of his character Scrooge.

Dickens' carefully managed image as a family man, who created the very quintessence of Christmas, starts to unravel. He is haunted by the women he mistreated: his wife Catherine, his mistress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan and the mysterious ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They strip aside the jovial public family image Dickens has tried to maintain and force him to face up to his past, present and future. Can Dickens learn from the ghosts, repent and be saved - as Scrooge was saved?

The drama is complemented by live musicians and musician/actors who perform colourful Victorian popular songs and street music, haunting carols and lively folk dances, arranged by acclaimed music theatre composer Steve Edis.

The Telling is performing What the Dickens! on a short tour this month, Hove (11/10/2023), Ulverston (12/10/2023), Stratford-upon-Avon (13/10/2023), Muswell Hill (14/10/2023) and Liverpool (15/10/2023), with a longer run planned for next year.

Full details from The Telling's website.

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