American idea of British Victorian Christmas

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“I WANT to set toes tapping and spines tingling,” says Mark Feakin, the director of a musical version of A Christmas Carol coming to the Lyceum later this month.

The former Sheffield Theatres executive producer, who left three years ago to set up Marmalade Photography, is directing the show for Sheffield Teachers’ Operatic Society.

This is his first outing with STO and he is enjoying theatre as a hobby these days, without all the pressure of budgets and internal politics that he said left him feeling burned out. He added: “I used to do the programming for the Lyceum, so to go back now to put on a show is quite an interesting experience.”

He said that the show, with music by multi-Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, was created for the world-famous stage at Madison Square Gardens in New York. A TV movie version has Frasier star Kelsey Grammar playing Scrooge.

Mark said: “It’s a very American idea of what a British Victorian Christmas is. I looked at it and thought, ‘oh, yuk,’ but the music and script are quite dark and keep to Charles Dickens’ book. We are stripping it back to the original ghost story. We’ve got rid of all the stage instructions and started again.”

He continued: “What you get is what Dickens wrote, a story about a very lonely man and a society in which the poor and needy were not treated at all well. That was one of Dickens’ big beefs. He was one of the movement to bring back Christmas after it was banned in Cromwell’s time, to lean society back towards the family. It’s the time when you see the first Christmas cards and Christmas trees.”

He added that Dickens’ other message was that “there are lots of people in need just outside your door”.

The stripping back of the show also includes doing away with a big set, making ingenious use of props such as four umbrellas that will whisked out to stand in for doors and Christmas gifts that will double up as furniture. But this production, put on by an amateur cast with professional help in direction and music including a 17-piece orchestra, is certainly not being done on a shoestring. Mark said the show budget is £90,00 to £100,000 and his decisions are based on keeping the action flowing.

He said: “It will be spectacular. We have full costumes and amazing effects and people flying through the air but you don’t have to wait for the set to trundle off before you see the next scene, so you won’t be applauding the set in this one.”

Mark, who started as an actor, said his first job was in a production of A Christmas Carol in Chichester and he performed in it for more than two years. He added: “I always thought I’d like to have a crack at it. To have a go now 20 years later is great.”

The hugeness of the undertaking for STO puts a lot of pressure on the cast of 43, who all have to audition for their roles. Mark said: “This is not like going to your village hall. It’s a very different ..... they have to have. The cast really get pushed because it’s £20 a ticket. We expect something very different – we demand it. It’s a privilege to perform on that stage and people expect the best, so we’re pushing them.”

The show will have all sorts of surprises – the ghosts don’t necessarily have their traditional entrances and there’s even some burlesque action.

Mark added: “Right from the first moment there is the feeling that something isn’t quite right. There are shadowy figures moving around in the background. This isn’t a pretty scene like off a Quality Street tin. Expect the unexpected.”

A Christmas Carol is at the Lyceum from November 13 to 17.