“Pretend we’re back in 1861 because Charles Dickens is back in the building.”
So begins a truly magical night at the Royal Pavilion. It isn’t hard to pretend. The exotic and sublime former pleasure palace of George IV has come alive with festive decorations. Five enormous Christmas trees bless the Music Room, complimented by the ornate red, gold and green decorations about the walls and fantastic domed ceiling. We can hear the singing of Christmas carols, and the distant laughter of those skating on the ice rink outside.
We’re gathered for a dramatic reading of Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story A Christmas Carol. The reading is performed by actor John O’Connor, in the guise of none other than Charles Dickens himself. This special evening seeks to replicate a reading the real Dickens made at the Pavilion back in 1861, taking inspiration from the author’s own manuscript and newspaper coverage at the time.
The evening that unravels before us is intimate, sensually invigorating and intensely heart-warming. O’Connor does a phenomenal job recounting the short story word-for-word from memory; a ground-breaking feat in and of itself. Stepping out onto the stage in a red waistcoat, bow tie and dark dinner jacket, he begins reading sombrely from a large leather-bound book. The audience tingles with uncertainty as we contemplate the possibility that this inexpressive style will constitute the next two hours of our lives, but then he snaps the book shut and heads down stage, all grand gestures and amusing characterisations.
The subtle use of sound effects, props and lighting further brings the performance to life. We are drawn into the world of Dickens’ Christmas story with the crackling of fires, the bustling chatter of Victorian London’s streets, the ringing of bells to announce the preternatural presence of Scrooge’s deceased business partner, and the three spirits of Christmas. Gentle shifts in lighting transport us from the festive raucous of the Christmas ball from Scrooge’s past, to the ominous graveyard scene where Scrooge confronts his deathly fate with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. They also work to create an eerie assemblage of shadows on the festive backdrop; O’Connor silhouette is projected behind him, so that Dickens’ iconic profile overlooks us all.
O’Connor gives a spectacular performance, one minute playful and comical, the next emotive and passionate. His characterisations are strong and engaging, and he uses the space about him exceptionally well. The evening was a highly commendable and unique experience, which really captured the Christmas spirit.
Image Credit: Emily Hyland