This festive production, abundant with shape shifters, spirits and ghostly apparitions, will open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse later this month. Bryony speaks to Joanne Hartley about adapting the classic text, being back in Yorkshire and how she’ll be spending Christmas.
How did your adaptation of A Christmas Carol come about?
Jason Carr (who wrote the lyrics and music) and I were commissioned by Chichester Festival Theatre whose annual Christmas production is performed by their wonderful youth theatre. There are seventy young people from age eight and upwards in the youth theatre and initially it seemed like a challenge to give everyone a role and an opportunity to speak! Eventually myself and Jason decided that the best way to tackle the challenge would be to tell the story through even more ghosts and the result was a success. Then Rachel Kavanaugh from Birmingham Rep read it and asked if it could be adapted and produced by them in 2009 with a view to transfering to West Yorkshire Playhouse the following year.
Did you reduce the cast size?
We slightly reduced the cast but the Birmingham Rep production still included local children. So, it continues to be a big production. In Yorkshire we’ve done the same and there are two teams of young people involved. I’ve been informed that they’re very good.
Has the play changed since its Birmingham run?
When we came to the second production we thought ‘what’s missing?’ There are two eccentric twin aunties in the party scene now with Paul Leonard joining Beverley Klein and Mic Pool, who is a genius when it comes to sound and visuals has added some extra magic. We have also changed Scrooges – in Leeds he’ll be played terrifyingly by Philip Whitchurch.
So the Leeds production is bigger and better? Lucky us! There are lots of productions of A Christmas Carol around. How is yours different?
There are lots more ghosts and songs and this production also features dancing!
How did you feel about working on such a classic and well known text?
I was daunted!
What was your approach to the adaptation?
As I see it stories such as these are designed to be read aloud so Jason and I got together in my kitchen and read it to each other, taking a paragraph each so we both had chance to listen, and we took it from there. I thinned it out but I didn’t re-write much – I didn’t have to, it’s Charles Dickens! I felt like Mr Dickens’ assistant, shaping his original into something that would work on stage.
You’ve been working with highly physical theatre company Frantic Assembly on a play about boxing, Beautiful Burnout, which is showing in Sheffield at the moment. This seems like such a contrast to your work on A Christmas Carol. Are there any similarities?
You have to decide what goes centre stage. In a musical the musical numbers tell the main parts of the story and with physical theatre it’s sections of movement.
In theatre often the two types, text and movement based theatre, exist separately and we avoid trying to bring them together. This is because it’s very difficult! But I think that we need to try to do this and as a writer working with Frantic Assembly it’s very exciting to experience it and to work towards making it happen.
Did you write the physical sections in Beautiful Burnout?
For Beautiful Burnout I sat in workshops and the performers and directors developed sections of movement which told stories. I would just watch and then I would go away and write something. And then I’d bring the scenes in and we’d try them out. There were a lot of changes. I have a drawer of unused scenes from Beautiful Burnout. For Stockholm, an earlier production with the same company, we didn’t change much at all but with Beautiful Burnout we changed a lot.
Has working in this way changed you as a writer?
Yes, working with Frantic Assembly has changed me as a writer. As a writer you’re slightly afraid of silences but now I’m interested in letting them happen. I find I’m trying to write fewer and fewer words.
You’re from Yorkshire originally but now you live elsewhere. Do you miss it?
No, I don’t miss Yorkshire. I was born in Wakefield and lived in Dewsbury but I moved to London when I was 18. I came back for a little bit but then my parents moved to Durham so I didn’t come back very often except to visit various aunties from time to time.
Being back now is very strange. I was standing in a railway arch and it seemed very familiar and then I remembered that this was where I used to get the bus to Dewsbury! I phone up my sister and say 'Do you remember this about Leeds and do you remember that?' When I lived here the mills were still operating in Dewsbury. I had forgotten how beautiful Leeds is.
What are your plans for Christmas this year?
I was going to go to Madrid but I’ve decided to stay at home with family and friends. I’ll be cooking a turkey in my new cooker once I’ve figured out how to work it!
A Christmas Carol opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 20th November where it runs until 15th January 2011.
For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700 or visit www..wyp.org.uk