Graham Young speaks to entertainer Al LePage who is bringing Dickens to the masses - the old-fashioned way.
The phrase ‘‘It’s a Dickens of a Christmas’’ is about to embed itself in the English language like never before.
Thanks to the bicentenary of the author’s birth in February, the BBC will broadcast a parody called The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff on December 19 and Great Expectations on December 27.
But Dickens was born long before the moving image was invented, so if you want to see him recreated on stage here’s another option after last weekend’s performance of A Christmas Carol by Clive Francis at Birmingham Town Hall, where Dickens first read the story on December 27, 1953.
In a matinee performance at the Birmingham Midland Institute next week, American actor Al LePage will play Englishman Thomas Hutchinson as he presents A Very Victorian Christmas Carol, Done Like Dickens!
Just like the great author did it himself, the full two-hour dramatic reading performance in the Lyttleton Theatre will be performed using only his voice, facial expressions and gestures to create all 26 characters.
Another special event, Food, Fiddling & Fun: A Fezziwig’s Christmas Party will immediately follow the show at 4pm in the Dickens Conference Room, with live fiddle music performed by musician Morgan Shaw, leader of the London-based Shaw Quartet. LePage has performed his one-man “solo” of Dickens’ Christmas Carol for five years in the US, and is bringing it to the UK for the first time.
“Dickens’ performances were meant for adult audiences, but mature children age ten and older should also be able to appreciate the show and will be admitted,” says LePage.
“After the show, you can meet the actor, socialise with food and drink at Fezziwig’s Christmas Party. It will be a veritable feast of traditional 19th century holiday foods, fiddling away with Christmas carols and lively dance music, and lots of fun.”
Englishman Thomas Hutchinson is a fictitious character originally developed to share Pacific Northwest regional and American western history.
“He’s not only like a Frankenstein of history, being made up of the bits and pieces of people who once really did live,” says LePage.
“But he’s also a sort of Forrest Gump of history, too, somehow always showing up whenever and wherever history is being made.”
So how will his show at the Midland Institute work?
“My time machine will take us back to the Great Britain of 1887 during the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Victoria,” says LePage. “I’ll set the stage, so to speak, with a sprinkle of history.
“The really interesting question, though, is... how do we tell the story?
“The answer, just like Dickens did! I not only use his acting style, but also his very own historic script.
“Yes, we’re heading back in time to experience the same historic event just five days before that time in 1853 when the famed author himself gave his very first dramatic reading for the public in Birmingham.
“My performance will also benefit the same charity that he did it for, too, the Birmingham & Midland Institute.”
LePage’s full performance uses Dickens’ exact public reading version, and creates all of the characters – accents and all – plus sound effects.
“Because I love improvisation combined with a highly interactive style means that I might encourage some members of the audience to join me on stage.
“I like to experiment and believe in seizing the moment, even if I don’t always know what’s going to happen next.
“This not only makes each performance unique, but also keeps them fresh and exciting, spontaneous and full of surprises.
“In this event, I’ll take the audience back to Birmingham 1887 as Victorian-era Englishman Thomas Hutchinson, Traveling Thespian.”
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts – which was named after Framlingham in Suffolk – LePage now lives in Portland, Oregon. For eight years, he has portrayed “people from the past” to thousands at National Park Service events in the US, for Parks Canada and at other venues.
LePage has written and produced his own historical dramas as one-man shows, and appeared on the televised American Public Broadcasting Station’s History Detectives series in roles ranging from a simple bartender to American Civil War Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee.
Star of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s one-man radio show A Christmas Carol with Al LePage, all of his Carol performances have been for a charity since 2006.
* The Birmingham and Midland Institute, founded by Act of Parliament in 1854, is a registered UK charity helping towards the diffusion and advancement of Science, Literature and Art in Birmingham
* Tickets for A Very Victorian Christmas Carol, Done Like Dickens! from 2pm on Thursday, December 22, at the Birmingham Midland Institute are £10 per adult (£7.50 BMI members / £6 students). Doors open at 1.30pm, seating is general admission, and tickets may be purchased at the door if still available. Reservations recommended. Tickets can be obtained from the Birmingham & Midland Institute reception – call 0121 236 3591 or you can reserve them by visiting www.BMI.org.uk and using their contact us page form or by directly emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org