Hull and Leeds bring a double dose of Dickens to Yorkshire

Two popular classic Victorian tales are on stage in the region this Christmas. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

The cast of Leeds Playhouses production of A Christmas Carol.  (Sam Taylor /Andrew Billington).
The cast of Leeds Playhouses production of A Christmas Carol. (Sam Taylor /Andrew Billington).

It’s beginning to look a lot like the time of year when pre-redemption Scrooge-type folk start saying it’s far too early to start seeing the ‘C’ word bandied about.

I say it’s never too early to get into the festive spirit.

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As our theatres begin to crank up the Christmas shows, with pantomimes now in rehearsal and shows for children well underway, it is an apt time – despite the humbugs it may elicit – to look at the seasonal offerings heading to our stages.

This year the West and East Ridings are brought together by Christmas tidings courtesy of two writers: Charles Dickens and Deborah McAndrew. McAndrew’s adaptations of two of Dickens’ best loved stories are coming to the stages of both the Leeds Playhouse and Hull Truck Theatre.

In Leeds, the perennial festive favourite story is A Christmas Carol.

Performed by the theatre’s rep company, something which has added a whole new dimension to the way audiences have engaged with the theatre’s productions, it is already shaping up to be a seriously successful Christmas production. The theatre has added a week to its original run, which will now finish on January 19, rather than the originally planned date of January 13 and the theatre has sold 19,000 tickets already. It’s one heck of a way to round off a successful season.

A Christmas Carol is a story that has attracted writers and performers ever since it was first penned by Dickens in 1843, and has been adapted dozens of times for TV and film. Little wonder McAndrew was attracted to the story. Her script of the classic Dickens tale was produced by Hull Truck and directed by Amy Leach last year and was a huge success. The team of director Leach and writer McAndrew combine again in this year’s Leeds Playhouse festive offering.

McAndrew is the award-winning writer who was best known for some time as the actor who played Angie Freeman in Coronation Street before turning her hand to writing with Northern Broadsides. The Bells was her first major work for the company and she has gone on to write several plays for the Halifax-based company including the 2014 An August Bank Holiday Lark, which won the Best New Play award at the UK Theatre Awards for regional theatre. It is little surprise that two of our biggest theatres have trusted her with their major Christmas productions, a worthy accolade.

Director Leach has been a powerhouse at Leeds Playhouse this season and is mining McAndrew’s adaptation for the contemporary resonances. “It’s a story of poverty and hardship and also of redemption, and the notion that we could all do with treating each other a little better, being kinder to each other, feels really powerful right now,” she says. “We’ve been talking in rehearsals about Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, with its scenes set in food banks. There are real parallels with this story – people struggling to survive on the very little they have. There’s a scene in the play in the Cratchit family household where the parents are not really eating their Christmas lunch – they’re letting their children have what food there is so that they don’t go hungry.”

A tale for our times.

Speaking of people going hungry, in the east of the county McAndrew’s take on another Dickens classic, Oliver Twist, is proving a big draw.

Hull Truck Theatre is being led with real integrity by Mark Babych. The artistic director has been at the forefront of assuring diversity on his stages. Earlier this year the theatre announced that each piece of work produced by Hull Truck would have ‘an equal split of gender balance across creative teams, including directors, writers and designers.’

It would also ‘seek to increase the number of opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and disabled actors by ensuring that fifty percent of all auditionees for our productions are BAME or disabled actors.’ He remains true to his word with Oliver Twist. He says: “The production reflects our strong commitment to our inclusive casting policy: fifty percent of the auditionees were BAME and disabled actors, two of the seven actors that make up our professional company are Black professional actors, and a traditionally male character will be played by an actress: Flo Wilson has been cast as the legendary Fagin.”

In a city like Hull, the boldness of Babych’s commitment to this policy cannot be overstated. However, this is no box-ticking exercise and Babych is no fool. Last year’s A Christmas Carol was Hull Truck’s most successful Christmas show to date.

McAndrew’s script for this year’s Oliver Twist features traditional carols, folk songs and original music – he has every right to feel confident that this year’s show will enjoy a similar success.

A Christmas Carol, Leeds Playhouse: Rob Pickavance is Scrooge, and other members of the Leeds Playhouse Ensemble in the cast include Darren Kuppan as Bob Cratchit, Jo Mousley as Mrs Cratchit, Tessa Parr and Elexi Walker as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. To January 19. Tickets 0113 2137700.

Oliver Twist, Hull Truck Theatre: Joining Flo Wilson as Fagin is Oghenekevwe Emefe, who has recently graduated with a BA Hons in Acting from ALRA North, making her professional stage debut with Hull Truck Theatre, taking on the roles of Agnes, Bet, and Rose. November 30 to January 5. Tickets 01482 323638.