Last week, I took a close look at a production of A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. For this week’s interview, I asked London actor Ashley Driver to help me focus on another theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved story. The 30-year-old actor is playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a unique production of A Christmas Carol running from November 21 through January 5 at Chickenshed Theatre. The North London production provides a grand experience for theatre-goers of all ages with its original music, 1930s-inspired sets and props, and a cast of over 200 actors.
Was there a play or class when you were growing up that hooked you into pursuing an acting career?
Yes, I’ve been a member of Chickenshed since I was six years old. How it started was the man who is now running all of our education programs – he was my primary school teacher. He suggested that I pop along to Chickenshed when he moved over [there] full-time.
It was just a fun place to be. They were doing a show called The Night Before Christmas. I was in one of the shows. I came to watch another of the shows. I don’t know, but with the lights, the smoke, and the magic, I was completely hooked on it. That’s my first memory of theatre affecting me from a young age.
What was your first encounter with A Christmas Carol?
My first encounter with A Christmas Carol was the Muppets version with Michael Caine playing Scrooge. I remember Kermit the Frog was Bob Cratchit. We used to watch it every Christmas from when I was about the age of three or four. It’s still a tradition. I always watch it with my family at Christmastime. They did it so well and made it so accessible for adults and young kids to watch and enjoy. I get just as much joy watching it now as I did back then.
I think A Christmas Carol is such an entertaining story, but it’s got a poignant message attached to it about what Christmas is. I feel Christmas has kind of been hijacked by a corporate machine that encourages us to buy and buy and buy. I think Christmas in its true nature is a wonderful thing. It’s my favorite time of the year. A Christmas Carol really captures that essence and spirit.
You’ve been with Chickenshed Theatre for many years. What’s one aspect about it that sticks out most to you?
When I joined Chickenshed as a child, I was in a theatre group and I enjoyed acting. I was coming along once a week. My granddad used to always pick me up. I was trying to describe one of my friends to him and my granddad couldn’t remember who it was. I was saying, “Oh, he’s got black hair. He’s Greek. His name is Luke.”
We went round [on] this. Finally I gave up and I said, “He’s in a wheelchair, Granddad.”
My granddad said it always stuck with him in the sense that I identified this person as a person. Then as a last resort, their disability was how I identified them. I think that’s the case with Chickenshed. Once you’re in Chickenshed, you’re just you as your first name. You know, you’re Patricia and I’m Ashley. That’s the thing that matters most. You know, we’re not “disability theatre.” We’re not theatre that really pushes it out there that we have loads of disability and ethnic representation. At Chickenshed, you’re a person foremost and I think that’s at the core of everything we do. It’s what makes us different. It’s not so much the product and the plays we do. I mean, of course they’ve got to be good. If you’ve got a brilliant show, but the people in it haven’t felt like people while rehearsing the show, then that show is a failure. For me, what makes Chickenshed unique for me is that approach. The process is just as important, if not more important, than the product in terms of how people feel.
Could you tell me more about this production of A Christmas Carol being set in the 1930s and the economic downturn of that period?
Yeah, with our artistic director, we conceptualized it. Looking at it, I think he found a lot of parallels between Victorian poverty and poverty in the 1930s in England. Although in England we had a social system by the 1930s, even then it still wasn’t enough. The 1930s in Britain did see … the margins between rich and poor just as they were in Victorian times.
Setting it in the 1930s has really invigorated it in terms of Scrooge’s costume, his voice, and his accent. For me, it feels like I’m in a new story, but it’s still A Christmas Carol. It feels really similar, but really different at the same time. I think it’s quite interesting and I hope it’ll pay off. I hope audiences will like it.
How do you embrace the challenge as a 30-year-old actor, if it was one, in portraying a character to life who is much older than you?
For me rather than his age, I think it’s more about his experiences. Rather than just angry and cruel, I’m trying to portray him as quite visibly damaged by things, whether it was the First World War or – in all versions there is a reason why, but I want to try to make that more prevalent by focusing more on his character. I’m still playing him as a man in his 70s, so I’ve got a nice sort of white wig and make-up and stuff. My physicality is different and I make the voice more weathered. On the whole, I want the focus more on the core of his soul rather than people looking and going, “Oh, that bloke looks a bit young!” I really don’t from far away.
What research did you do about the time period?
We used to learn about it quite a lot in school. Obviously it was such a horrible decade for English and British people. Also, my granddad was born in 1930. I used to live about a half hour drive away from Chickenshed. When he was picking me up from rehearsals, he was constantly telling me about how things were when he was growing up. The war started when he was nine. I’ve always had a decent grasp of how life was on a personal aspect, in listening to my granddad’s stories and my nan’s stories.
But yes, I’ve had to do my research about the poverty, industry, and social aspects of the time. You’ve got to do your homework. You never want to be called out by somebody who was born in 1930 coming out of the show and saying, “That guy got it completely wrong.”
What can you share about the costumes of the Ghosts?
The Ghost of Christmas Past, she’s in a sort of wedding dress. In the play, they go back to Scrooge being a young man and being in love. His partner is leaving him because she’s had enough of his lust for money and neglecting her. Costume-wise the wedding dress represents the relationship between Scrooge and Belle. You don’t see it right until the end because it’s the last thing thing she shows him.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is dressed as one of those New York afro jazz guys. He’s got a big white mink coat and jewels. He’s flashy and cool. His costume is really exciting. I think people will like that a lot. We’ve stayed traditional with the Ghost of Christmas Future in the gown and you can’t see his face. I think the costumes are really cool.
Knowing that Dickens published A Christmas Carol in London and that the story takes place in London, do you have any special feelings about doing the play as a London actor?
For me, I wouldn’t want to live or grow up anywhere else. Being able to do the play in London, a stone’s throw away from where he was writing it, makes it even more magical. You imagine the areas you work in. There are some parts of London that look quite Victorian and others like the 1930s in terms of their architecture. Being out in the city where it’s originally conceived … you know, when the ghost takes me to my past, I imagine that I’m in Hertfordshire. When I’m in the present, I imagine that I’m in Camden. Being able to relate it to places you know and grown up in does really enhance it for you as an actor. It gives you a helping hand.