Having a Dickens of a good time with the Pantaloons’ Christmas Carol

The Pantaloons are the closest thing you are likely to get to a band of strolling players in this day and age.

They are not ones for elaborate sets or complicated costume changes; instead, what they offer are exciting, dynamic plays with imaginative direction and a wonderful sense of fun.

The Pantaloons are run by husband and wife team Mark and Caitlin Hayward, who have a love of presenting the classics in a new light.

Next weekend Mark is bringing his itinerant theatre company to Ipswich for a timely performance of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol.

As with all Pantaloons productions it is being staged with a minimum of fuss and the maximum amount of invention.

The performances are being staged in St Peter’s church, down by the Ipswich Waterfront. For Mark, the show marks a welcome return to his hometown.

“It’s great to be back. We have played Ip-Art in the past and we have had a great reception, so we hope that this too will attract people’s attention.

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Mark said the inspiration for The Pantaloons has always been the idea that Shakespearean theatre troupes took to the open road and turned up at various inns and public open spaces and just put on a show.

Mark gives a wistful sigh as we discuss this: “Ah, if only it was that easy. Today we have to apply for a temporary public entertainment licence and have to do a health and safety assessment, but we are the closest thing there is to that old ideal.

“We pride ourselves that we can pitch up anywhere and put on a show. I am sure we could, just about, have enough space to do this in someone’s living room. It is a nice thought that we can go just about anywhere and perform. It doesn’t take a long time to set up and people can just engage in a good story, well told.”

He said there was something liberating about just driving around the country and putting on a show.

The company was formed at Kent University at Canterbury when Mark and Caitlin were students. They learnt their trade the hard way. “When we started off we performed for free. The only way we got paid was when we passed a bucket round at the end of a performance and we learned very quickly if people couldn’t hear then they wandered off quite quickly.

“So from the earliest stages we learned to read an audience. You can tell very quickly if people can’t hear and if they can’t, you get louder. We are trained to project well but if that doesn’t work – say for example it’s a windy day and the trees are blowing – then you have to use a bit of throw to get it out there. The benefit of working outdoors is that you can see your audience and you can work with them.”

Having a good story helps. Mark loves Shakespeare and Dickens and returns to them a lot for source material. In recent years the company have tackled such classics as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Canterbury Tales and Grimm Fairy Tales.

“We adapt the telling of the story to our surroundings. We make an assessment of the location when we arrive and we incorporate and make the most of some features, but by and large it doesn’t really matter where we perform. For us the audience is important.”

Mark said that the more a performer worked with an audience, the more they spoke directly to the crowd, got them involved in the piece being performed, the more engaged the audience became and the more they responded to the show.

Many of the same skills that they bring to their outdoor summer shows also work in ad-hoc spaces like St Peter’s. “Naturalism doesn’t really work in a large or an outdoor environment; you’ve got to draw on other influences – Commedia dell’arte, panto; things with lots of audience interaction; things which are very big and physical, which draw an audience’s attention.”

He said the trick for companies such as The Pantaloons was to keep their performances not only colourful, fun and lively but also surprising. By including songs and physical comedy, audiences were not sure what to expect next.

“Our style is accessible for everyone: from little children who enjoy the bright colours to teenagers who enjoyed seeing new life breathed into an old classic; from people who have never seen a theatre production before to die-hard Dickensian fans who get all the inter-textual jokes. Everyone loves the interaction, the fun nature and the lively music and it’s just something different! In our productions the audience’s imagination is just as important as ours – we invite them into the world of the play and a scene’s direction can completely change, based on an audience member’s suggestion.

“Our audition process deals with whether people can project and can handle the language of Shakespeare or Dickens but we do spend a long time working with potential actors on their improvisation skills; on their ability to think and invent on their feet.”

He added that one of the joys of Dickens or Shakespeare was that the authors provided the actors with so much material to play with.

“At the end of the day they are great story-tellers. For my adaptation, I have added very little – just a brief framing story. It’s a very straight re-telling because the original material is so good. I have used all the Dickens dialogue because it is perfect.”

He said that the framing device – The Pantaloons Penny Circus, a group of inept travelling performers – was created to draw the audience into the story.

“The Pantaloons Penny Circus are a circus troupe that offer a variety of entertainments, including a performance of A Christmas Carol, but they are interrupted a few times, and there interludes featuring a magician, The Great Wizardo, and the company’s own freak show, which bizarrely doesn’t feature any freaks.

“We have based the Penny Circus on acts that actually existed, but sadly our circus reveals itself to be a bit weak on the entertainment front; but their telling of A Christmas Carol is spell-binding.”

He said that the Pantaloons is a company of four for this tour, including himself. “The actor playing Eberneezer Scrooge just plays Scrooge, with everyone else playing all the other parts.”

He said that Dickens remains a favourite author and for him is synonymous with Christmas. “Dickens and the Victorian era in which he was writing pretty much invented what we now consider to be a modern Christmas.

“Everything that now makes up our traditional Christmas comes from that era when Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol – the Christmas tree was introduced to this country by Prince Albert and we still have Christmas cards featuring Victorian carollers, so this is still how we view Christmas.”

He said that although Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, he successfully captured the look and feel of a Victorian Christmas. “He certainly made all these traditions popular. There’s something comforting about a snowy, foggy London and cheery people singing in the streets, and funny-looking characters in fingeless gloves.”

Dickens also told very moral stories and Mark believes that people still relate to that. He said that people can relate these tales to situations in their own lives. There’s a wonderful sense of natural justice when a curmudgeonly individual is rehabilitated through the goodwill that Christmas conjures up.

“But it’s not just the moral. Dickens is a fabulous writer; a great storyteller. A Christmas Carol, like all his stories, is full of great characters – they are all interesting people who you want to spend time with.

“Bob Cratchitt is the epitome of the hard-working underdog and it would be so easy to make him a cipher, just to move the story forward, but Dickens doesn’t take the easy route – he makes him an interesting fully-rounded character and what happens to Tiny Tim, or what possibly happens to Tiny Tim, is one of the best-realised tragedies in English literature.

“Dickens makes him very real. People do relate to him. Dickens makes even the smallest characters into realistic people. Also, the temptation would be to make Scrooge into a pantomime villain, but again he doesn’t.

“He takes the time and trouble to show how he came to be this twisted character that we all love to hate. I think Dickens isn’t given enough credit in Christmas Carol because, if you think about it, he has written one of the very first science fiction stories. He has written a story in which time travel actually figures quite heavily. I don’t think that had really been explored before.

“No other book from that time allows a character to go back and relive his past life and to draw lessons from his earlier life. It’s quite a bold move to show the end point first and then go backwards.”

Mark said that from his point of view A Christmas Carol was one of the few perfectly-constructed and perfectly-told stories.

He said that it is a very complex story made up of lots of different layers and there are many ways of tackling such an ingenious tale. “What we have done, as we always do, is take a simple approach with ingenious staging, using only a few props and costumes.

“If you are adapting Christmas Carol for the stage you are faced with two options. You can either go all out for spectacle and make every single scene, of which there are many, look incredibly rich and different – there are so many changes of location and time – or you go for something that’s simple and stylised. It allows you to convey those scene changes in a different and very evocative way – and that’s what we have gone for. It allows you to have some fun with it. You have moments of tragedy but you also have moments of high comedy. It has that perfect blend.”

Even with a small company, he says it is no problem for the audience to identify who is playing what part.

“It’s a question of hats. The audience doesn’t expect to believe that an actor is really that character. They have just seen him as half-a-dozen other people. We have a company of four playing dozens of people. The audience identifies with the actor, not the individual character. It’s the actor who changes his hat or his coat. We are entering into a pact with the audience to entertain. Our type of theatre is huge fun because it requires a real suspension of disbelief – actors and audiences are embarking on an entertaining journey together.”

The Pantaloons’ A Christmas Carol is at St Peter’s By The Waterfront, Ipswich, on Saturday December 22 at 4.30pm and 7pm.

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