PAST: The Complete Works started off as a recreational activity, it was never meant as a commercial project. It was just something we were doing for fun at the weekends. Then we learnt from some jugglers about ‘passing the hat’, and it began to gain in popularity as a street show. People told us to do Edinburgh, and we thought we’d be going there as a big finale before returning to our proper jobs. But then the phone started ringing from producers around the world who wanted to see more – we were very surprised by how successful it was.
A few people accused the show of “dumbing-down” Shakespeare, and if we were setting out to educate people, then it would be. But we were actually just celebrating his life and entertaining people in the process. We ended up touring the show around Britain, and in fact I met my wife during a run at the Lilian Baylis theatre – so England soon became my permanent home.
By the time it got to 2003, my daughter had been born and I wanted to spend more time with her and retrain as a speech therapist. I intended to quit showbusiness altogether, but then Rolf Harris threw a monkey-wrench in the works when he asked me to condense the life of Hans Holbein the Younger into ten minutes of television! That in turn led to working on an abridgement of Star Wars for Sky Movies and then a Tony Blair project for Radio Four. Shortly after that, I met Stephen Sondheim in New York, who suggested I get some experience working with music, so I decided to have a go at a musical.
PRESENT: The sort of music I really love – Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell - is missing from the musical stage. I thought, I love this style of music and I love doing comedy, and my producer had always said I should do a show about Dickens, so we set about mixing all these elements together to produce a show. I took Dickens Unplugged to Edinburgh and it proved very popular.
With Shakespeare, it’s the plots that are important, whereas with Dickens the focus is more on characterisation. Bill Sikes, Miss Haversham – everyone knows these characters though often people are a bit sketchy on the actual storylines. Also, an advantage with Dickens is that a lot is known about his life, so we were able to weave in his story with the fictional works.
I remember reading David Copperfield at school, which really made an impression on me, though I found it a bit strange at the end when all my favourite characters were put on a boat and sent to Australia – I didn’t know anything about the penal colonies back then so it was a bit lost on me! After I moved to London, I picked up my Dickens again and started reading, and I decided to try and make this less of a period piece and more of a contemporary piece. Whenever you see Dickens done nowadays, it’s all about the big costumes and the RSC accents, so in our show we try to update the characters and make them sound more contemporary.
Dickens has a sensibility that appeals to both sides of the Atlantic. He believes that people can reform – that Scrooge can be redeemed, for example – and that sentimentality really appeals to Americans. I think the Brits on the other hand love him because of the realism – when he describes people and situations, he really describes them.
FUTURE: I’d like to write a proper musical next – not a condensed series of narratives but a single story – something more in the vein of Wicked. There’s no particular writer I’ve got in my sights to adapt. People tell me I should do Jane Austen. I’d rather take a short Haiku story and expand it into a full-length show and really flip peoples’ expectations!
I have a great affection for music that has roots, that has evolved from generation to generation. I spent my youth listen to the Grateful Dead over and over. People think they’re a heavy metal band, but Jerry Garcia was a banjo player and knew over 1,500 traditional songs! It’s this kind of music that inspired Dickens Unplugged, and it’s what I want to incorporate into my future projects.
We’d like to tour the show nationally and then I’d love to take it to New York. Americans love their Dickens. Their sense of humour isn’t quite as cruel as the British, but I still think it would go down well.
- Adam Long was speaking to Theo Bosanquet
Dickens Unplugged opened on 9 June 2008 (previews from 23 May) at the West End’s Comedy Theatre, where it’s cu booking until September 2008.