An Interview with Actor, Writer & Director John O’Connor

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Now November is here and with Halloween behind us, thoughts well and truly turn to Christmas. So what better time for Karl Hornsey to catch up with actor, director and writer John O’Connor, who will be returning to the De Grey Rooms at the Theatre Royal, York, from 17-21 December for A Christmas Carol, his one-man reading of Dickens’ famous short story.

Are you into full swing with rehearsals now for A Christmas Carol or do you not need to practice for the role any more?
Oh, no I definitely need to practice! We don’t start for another week or so because we’re rehearsing The Importance of Being Earnest at the moment, but once that’s on the road I can turn my attention back to A Christmas Carol. As you can imagine that’s slightly daunting. You saw it last year didn’t you?

I did yes, at York. I was given an old copy of A Christmas Carol by my grandparents several years ago, and ever since then I’ve read it just before Christmas as well as watching the Alastair Sim film version.
We’re back at the De Grey Rooms this year as well.

Indeed. Is there any significance in coming to York again in that five-night slot just before Christmas or is that a coincidence?
It’s just coincidence. We tried it out last year and it sold out so we thought we’d better book it in again! And it looks as though it’s probably going to sell out again. I think a lot of people come along to see it just to feel Christmassy. There is some significance in coming to York in that Dickens gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the Festival Concert Rooms in 1858.

john o'connor interview charles dickens york

Image: David Bartholemew

“It’s quite a delicate tightrope walk”

I know Dickens effectively did the readings for the money, but was he the only famous author who did that, taking his stories on the road?
Yes he was and in fact a few people advised him not to do it because they thought it was somewhat vulgar and would tarnish his literary reputation. But Dickens was always attracted by popular theatre and almost became an actor himself when he was 21. He was constantly putting on amateur theatrical and semi-pro performances, and that’s where he met his mistress. They did a big show called The Frozen Deep and she was involved in that, so yes it was partly the money because he had 10 kids and was going through an expensive divorce. But writing is a lonely business and he had no connection with his public, so this was a way of satisfying his hankering after the footlights, his desire to be an actor and it gave him that direct connection with his audience.

Does that translate to you as well then, do you have those same feelings with a one-man show and you’ve got just the audience in front of you?
Yes. It’s quite a delicate tightrope walk in the sense that people are so invested in the story and they love it so much that if you don’t get it right you can really screw up someone’s Christmas! There’s that pressure, but at its best it almost becomes like a conversation with the audience. It’s got that intimacy to it of direct storytelling because usually on stage you have someone else to bounce off and I don’t have that, so I use the audience for that. When they’re up for that and comfortable with it then it’s a joy and I think that’s what Dickens thrived on.

Do you find that you get a different reaction from different audiences or is it pretty uniform? Especially as, even though it’s about Christmas, it’s quite a dark and gloomy tale at times, albeit with a happy ending.
It’s more about the geography of each room. So in the De Grey Rooms, for example, I can see the audience throughout because it’s a very open room, which is good. In other places you’ll be on a stage with lights in your face and you won’t see the audience, or the acoustics in the room mean you can’t even hear them. They’ll probably laugh in the same places and feel sad or affected in the same places, but you can’t see or hear them sometimes.

I guess people go into it with a lot of knowledge about the story or the films and know everything about it. Is that a help or a hindrance to you?
Because there are so many versions of A Christmas Carol and so many great ones, my take on it was that there are one-man productions, but they’re usually star vehicles, such as Simon Callow doing it. My interest was wondering what it was like when Dickens did it and how he would have done it, so that’s the starting point of the show and hopefully it’s intriguing for the audience as well to feel how it might have been to be in the presence of Charles Dickens, and to have heard this read from his lips. If you don’t get the characters right, then there is a huge disappointment and that was the risk that Dickens took because those characters were so familiar to his audience. If he turned up and gave his Scrooge or Marley, or in other readings Bill Sykes and Fagin and so on, he must have been a great performer and a great communicator with the audience because, from eyewitness accounts, people said it was exactly how they imagined them to be.

john o'connor interview charles dickens stage

Image: Craig Fuller

“Nice to have that direct connection”

He was perceived as a man of the people or the masses because of his work, but would his readers have been the sort of people who could afford to go to see him?
Well he always insisted on there being some very cheap tickets so that ordinary working class people could go and see him, and he was the first author really to have that sort of readership across all classes, and to portray the working classes in the way that he did. As you said earlier, when you go back to the original A Christmas Carol, it is actually a dark story and a very political story representing all of those left out of society.

And clearly there’s a modern-day resonance in that.
Yes, I mean there are four million people living in poverty in this country in 2019, so unfortunately it’s as relevant now as it was in 1843. We’ve now got a situation where 10 years ago there was a financial crisis caused by bankers, people like Scrooge, and it seems that disabled people, such as Tiny Tim, were punished for it by having their benefits cut and so on through austerity. That’s an uncomfortable parallel with 1843 that is worth considering when we hear the story.

It’s interesting then that people still get a feelgood factor despite that, but hopefully it makes them sit and think. That obviously ties in with the children’s charities that have been linked to the project.
Yes, last year it was Barnado’s and this year it’s with Great Ormond Street Hospital, because Dickens helped to set up Great Ormond Street, which was the first hospital for sick children. His early readings of A Christmas Carol were for GOSH, so it’s nice to have that direct connection. I thought that if it’s done well and the audience think of charity and of redemption and that we all have a part to play in society, it’s a shame if that just goes out the door. If the audience then feels good about giving and the likes of Barnado’s or Great Ormond Street Hospital can benefit then that’s great.

Just going back to the acting and performing, is it difficult to avoid slipping into caricature with so many different parts to play?
In short, yes. Some of the characters are incredibly detailed, but of course some of them are broad brushstrokes and were written almost as caricatures. So yes, that is a danger, but it’s a trap that we tried very hard not to fall into. As long as you represent what some characters are there to represent, be it the face of benevolent charity or a kid running to get a turkey then the audience can live with it. They have to buy into that quite early on, otherwise it’s going to be a strange night!

john o'connor interview charles dickens theatre

Image: David Bartholemew

“The ideal thing to come and see to feel Christmassy”

Dickens performed it, I think, more than 150 times. Can you see yourself doing that? Are we looking at another 10 years of A Christmas Carol with John O’Connor?
I’ll do it as long as people want me to do it and as long as I still enjoy it. I’m getting enquiries about Christmas 2020, so it looks like I’ll be doing it for a while yet. I think the audience have to know that you mean it and feel it and that you have a desperate desire to tell the story. If they think you’re just going through the motions then I think that’s the time to stop because it’s got so much in it, so much passion and love that you can’t fake it. You have to feel that you want to convey that and I really do, this year as much as any other, so long may that continue. I love doing the show and having that contact with the audience.

Do you think your production of A Christmas Carol is something that would work abroad as well as in this country?
We did it in Germany last year and it went down a storm. I was worried that the language might be difficult, but Germans generally speak fantastic English and there were a lot of people who had read the original, so the reaction was equally as good as here. I’d love to do more abroad and Dickens did a big tour of America, so it would be nice to do it there. You never know when opportunities are going to knock.

Finally, if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read the book, or hasn’t been to see your production, what would you say to them as to why they should come to see it?
I think because most people as schoolchildren get Dickens foisted on them at some point, it sort of puts them off. But the great thing about Dickens is that he is so theatrical and his characters are so theatrical, and A Christmas Carol is no exception. It really lends itself to a theatrical experience and it’s great storytelling, so it opens a door to the language. Dickens would never say one word where 10 would do, and it’s lovely to play with that and to hear that language painting pictures in the air. I think it’s unlike any other theatrical experience as it’s kind of a conversation on stage, it’s historical and some of the things that I do come from the original, but we also use modern theatre techniques with video images, lighting and sound effects and so on. So if you haven’t seen it before and it’s coming up to Christmas, it’s the ideal thing to come and see to feel Christmassy. No matter how many times they play Slade, it doesn’t make me feel Christmassy! With this, you will laugh and you will cry, it has those emotions in the story and you should walk out feeling better about your fellow men and women.

John O’Connor’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at York Theatre Royal, 17-21 December
Top image: Craig Fuller

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