Sunday, 20 December 2009

A Christmas Carol – an adaptation for the stage. The adaptor’s story.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens adapted for the stage by writer Phil Lowe

In the Spring of 2008 the Lace Market Theatre came to me to ask if I would be interested in adapting Charles Dickens’s novel for the stage. They were looking for something different and traditional to perform in the December of that year and they knew that there would be at least three pantos performed in the city of Nottingham alone at that time. This request was based on knowing me as a member of the theatre club and the fact that I had performed a one man show version twice in former years at a church venue for charity. However, despite writing and conceiving some pieces for performance in my University years (1989 -1992) on a Performance Art degree course, I had never written a full length play with music before!

Martin Berry directs.

The writing took approximately seven months of my own time and entailed reviewing my script for my one man show, re-reading the novel three or four times and watching three versions of the story on DVD for further inspiration. The Muppets Christmas Carol (fun though it is) got left out in the proverbial snow. I was working full-time during this period and so the work was done in my own time (ok, I did take a few naughty sickies from work when the deadline for the script to be presented to the panel loomed ever nearer) mostly in the evening. Working on a Christmas story in the summer is weird, I can tell you.

David Kimmins multi-functional set . Design copyright.

Over time the play was accepted and a director (Martin Berry) and set designer (David Kimmins) chosen. I remember too that the auditions were happening in the early part of September of that year. I had just been made redundant from my job at Capital One and was taking a much needed holiday in France. Using the internet from the French Media Store FNAC as my only contact medium I was getting snippets of information about who had been chosen for the parts. I was so excited and slightly frustrated being away from the action back home. I had written the piece with thirty one parts to played by an ensemble. Twenty actors actually played them and aside from Scrooge, all the parts were shared. A good proportion of children were engaged and we had two teams of Cratchit kids because of performance laws.

Nephew Fred visits Uncle Scrooge

The writing included some traditional Christmas Carols to add atmosphere and I did my best to be historically correct and use carols that would have been sung in the mid 1800s in Great Britain and a piece of sombre music for the graveyard scene at the beginning of the show namely, Bruckner’s Ave Maria. As the rehearsals progressed the director made some particular choices about casting the younger roles and a kissing scene between Topper and Betsy that would have been inappropriate for pre-teens to do. Martin had chosen that they be played by youngsters and that they be Fred’s kids playing a Christmas game. Martin works with children for part of his living so, although sceptical at first, I agreed to the changes. The whole piece was a work in progress during rehearsals which included some tinkering with the writing with mutual approvals.

Scrooge observes the Cratchit family

I wanted the piece to be part narrated by a constantly changing array of experienced and vocally good actors male and female. The last thing I wanted in my imagining of the work was a single ‘I’m Charles Dickens’ actor sitting on a stool telling the story. It was also extremely important that all the actors and actresses were clear in their speeches. The Lace Market Theatre is only a small venue but vocal clarity is vital to the enjoyment of the play, I feel. Any play really, but especially such familiar Dickensian language. Get it wrong and it would jar.

Festive market scene

After I returned from France I attended some of the early rehearsals. Actually I found it hard to be away! Most of the play had been cast although for while we had no Nephew Fred and I’m sure over the rehearsals I read in every single part – even Tiny Tim! God bless him!

Make up for for Ghost of Christmas Past

As time went on I went into the theatre in the day time to help David Kimmins and his team build the set and set to painting it in various muted washes in grey, black, brown and deep green. It was very exciting for me to see it all coming together and watch Martin and his cast develop my script and improvise the action of the story. One of the main things I asked for was for there to be as little usage of props as possible. Not even a goose for the Cratchits' dinner. It worked great through mime.

Young Scrooge

The wardrobe department at the Lace Market Theatre is brilliant and many of the costumes were designed from scratch and as always the ladies there put in hours of hard work to ensure that it all looked wonderful and authentic to the time.

The Fezziwigs scene

Looking back at some notes I wrote for a radio interview at BBC Radio Nottingham I see that the first draft of my play was only twenty-nine pages long and would have lasted just over an hour! The finished piece was forty-five pages long. In performance each half was forty five minutes long and we had a twenty minute break. Obviously, I realised that an hour wasn’t really sufficient and I built on each scene for narrative bulk.

The hardest scenes to write were the festive market scenes (so they didn’t sound corny) and getting the scene between Mrs Dilby and Mrs Jones with Old Joe to sound credible to a modern audience. I also had to invent ways of linking each scene so that it all flowed nicely and told the story well. Fluidity was key. As I concentrated on the writing I would often get mental snatches of how it might all unfold on stage. I suppose having many years stage experience helped with that.

The Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge.

November came and rehearsals were going well and the fine tuning of the piece was happening on stage with the performers and the director and the members of the theatre who enjoy the technical side of performance were creating the lighting effects and sound effects. I felt the show was particularly blessed in the folk we had doing that. The actors were doing a sterling job too, despite some Winter colds and sniffles going about.

Make up for Marley's ghost.

Sometime along the way I met up with a team of nine young women students and their tutor from a beauty and theatrical make-up course from Castle College in Nottingham. They wanted to be involved in the production as a work experience and they kindly gave their time and make-up skills free of charge. They did a brilliant job.

Phil Lowe

So, the original production ran from 8th December to 13th December 2008 with two shows on the last day. It was a complete sell out and got a rave review in the local Nottingham Evening Post from the reviewer Alan Geary who called it the Lace Market Theatre’s ‘Top show in a good year’ and listed it in his review of the year 2008 as one of the top ten shows to be seen in Nottingham, both professional and amateur. Martin Berry (the director) and I managed, by hook or by crook, to sneak into every performance and were thrilled by this show made magic by all involved.

Mark Breach as Ghost of Christmas Present

The show has had another outing this year as Chilwell School in Nottingham put on three performances at the studio theatre there. I went along to see their last night and was excited to see the piece again and the sterling job the school children and their teachers Sally Stevens and Nicole Foyster had done with it. Some very accomplished performances, particularly Ewan Turner as Scrooge.

Roger Newman as Scrooge.

The script is available for professional and amateur use. For further information please contact me at Please head email re: A Christmas Carol performance.

Update: the ebook is now available to download for £3.99 at


Marian Barker said...

Many thanks for that - I really, really enjoyed reading it.

Phil said...

A pleasure Marian. Thanks again for the inspiration. I may add some more pictures along the way now I have got the new updated editor working.

Gail's Man said...

Interesting piece. I've only ever been to the Lace Market Theatre once. Got some free tickets from Radio Nottingham.

Phil said...

Bah humbug! Then Mr GM you clearly need to pay next time you cheapskate! lol

Seriously, thanks for your comment and interest and I hope that you and Gail have a lovely Christmas together. xx

French Fancy said...

I'm so impressed Phil - what a shame you can't fall into a spot somewhere that will give you a full time job doing just this. You seem really suited to it.

French Fancy said...

word veri was watch - and I'm wondering if you 'watch' The Stage newspaper each week?