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John O’Connor - Mr Charles Dickens Presents A Christmas Carol Interview

European Arts Company are celebrating their fifth year bringing their critically acclaimed, authentic production of A Christmas Carol to Greenwich Theatre, London. This festive adaptation sees actor John O’Connor take to the stage as Charles Dickens, performing the classic Christmas ghost story as Dickens did himself in Greenwich in 1866.

Charles Dickens originally wanted to be an actor and A Christmas Carol was the first public performance he gave of his work. After opening night, he said the success was most wonderful and prodigious – perfectly overwhelming and astounding altogether! Dickens’s electrifying public readings were hugely popular throughout Britain and America; he had a magnetic stage presence, riveting eyes, expressive voice, and wonderful powers of characterisation. Remarkably, Dickens made more money from his readings than from all his novels and stories put together, performing A Christmas Carol over 150 times. This exciting production, adapted from Dickens’s own public reading scripts and eyewitness accounts of him on stage, recreates the spirit of his original performances.

We caught up with John to discuss the show in further detail.

What first attracted you to this project?
Well, I live in Rochester which was where Dickens grew up and later died so I’ve always had an interest in him. I read that he’d spent the last 12 years of his life doing public performances of his own work, especially A Christmas Carol. He toured all over Britain and America performing to 2000people a night and was an absolute sensation. He’d nearly become a professional actor at the age of 20 and never stopped hankering after the footlights. By all accounts, he was an astonishing performer. Far from ‘reading’ the stories, he learned them, rehearsed them meticulously and turned them into an acting tour de force. So successful was he, that he made more money from these public readings than from all his books and novels put together! 

My starting point for this show was ‘what must it have been like to be in the audiencein the presence of the author himself?’ Everything came from there.

You’re now in the 5th year of performing the show, how has the piece changed during that time and how do you keep it fresh for yourself?
We always try and refresh the show every year by adding a new element or working with a new director, designer, etc. I can only really do this show in December so there’s always an 11 month gap between last and first performances. That alone keeps it fresh and honest. I’m a year older and come to it with with another year of experience. I’m now the age Dickens was when he performed it at his peak but thankfully I’m not (like Dickens) also writing ‘Our Mutual Friend’ while touring Britain and America, editing two magazines and campaigning for several charities all at the same time!  

Why do you think A Christmas Carol has such lasting appeal?
Like all great works of Art, A Christmas Carol is infinitely adaptable so there have been thousands of film and stage adaptations (starting in 1843 as soon as the book came out). There are versions by artists as variable as The Muppets, Doctor Who, Frank Capra, Donald Duck, and so on. It was the first story to properly articulate what an English Christmas really was and what it meant. The story encapsulates for us the spirit of Christmas past, present and future, the idea of charitable giving and helping those who are less well off. Audiences come back to see the show time and time again because they want to tap into the source and to feel truly Christmassy. No matter how many times I hear Slade belted out in the shops, it doesn’t make me feel festive. But give me two minutes of A Christmas Carol and I’m right there by the hearth, feeling kinder towards my fellow human beings and thankful for all that we have.

You’ll get to perform the show in Greenwich as Dickens himself did. How special is that for you as an actor?
It certainly adds a frisson of authenticity to the performance. I’ve performed the show on stages and in rooms that Dickens was in himself and that’s always spooky in the best sense of the wordWe try our best to be authentic and to recreate Dickens’s style of dress, the set he toured, the gestures he favoured and even the script that he used. However, there is one ritual of his that I haven’t tried to recreateHe prepared for a performance by having two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and (half an hour before he went on stage) a glass of sherry with a raw egg beaten into it! But, who knows, maybe I’ll try it on the last night.

If you could ask Charles Dickens one question what would you ask him?
How does The Mystery of Edwin Drood end? He was writing it when he died and never finished it. It’s a crime mystery set in my home town of Rochester and the mystery is sadly lost to history.

What are your favourite Christmas traditions?
Christmas is the great constant throughout our lives and there’s comfort in all the traditions, like the tree, the lights, hanging up stockings, singing carols, and giving gifts. It’s hard to pick a favourite but Christmas dinner with the family around the table is the centrepiece of it all. Dickens reminds us through his depiction of the Cratchit family how precious this time is and how lucky we are to have each other, even if we have little else

What keeps you inspired as a creative?
The wolf at the door! I’ve been an actor for 26 years and it’s the best job in the world when you’re working and the hardest one when you’re not. What inspires me is that you can have an idea one day on a train, then a year later you are in the West End performing it which is what happened when I dreamt up the idea for The Trials of Oscar WildeOriginally, I was only ever going to do one performance of A Christmas Carol to help out my local theatre back in 2015. Yet, here I am8 years later with nearly 300 performances under my belt and back at Greenwich Theatre for a 5th year. I feel very lucky indeed.  

What do you hope people take away from seeing this version of A Christmas Carol?
This is not the austere, black and white Dickens that we see staring out at us from old photographs. He was a colourful and complex character with tremendous energy and passion, and this is what we want the audience to experience.  At its best, the show is like an intimate conversation with the audience. People love A Christmas Carol so much and know it so well that you have to deliver it with total commitment, attention to detail and real passion. Only then do you get the response back from the audience (laughter, tears, horror, compassion) that lets you ride the wave of their energy.
Dickens used to say to his audiences before a reading:
‘If you feel disposed to give expression to any emotion whether grave or gay, you will do so with perfect freedom from restraint and without the least apprehension of disturbing me’. 

In other words, there’s no need to be as reserved as a Victorian! Feel free to laugh, cry, gasp and wonder, in the spirit of Christmas past, present and future.

Mr Charles Dickens Presents A Christmas Carol will be performed on Tuesday 12th and Monday 18th December 2023. Tickets are available from

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