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Old Curiosities find some Common Ground

PUBLISHED: 17:16 19 October 2017

The cast of The Old Curiosity Shop.Picture: COMMON GROUNDS

The cast of The Old Curiosity Shop.Picture: COMMON GROUNDS

Rural touring champions Common Ground theatre company love to give Dickens a new spin. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to writer-actor-directors Julian Harries and Pat Whymark about the joy of bringing their favourite author to the stage

Joe Leat and Tristan Teller in The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS Joe Leat and Tristan Teller in The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS

“You can’t beat a good bit of Charles Dickens,” that’s the view of writer-actors Julian Harries and Pat Whymark as they prepare their adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop – a work that skillfully mixes humour and pathos to great effect.

Over the years Harries and Whymark’s theatre company Common Ground have performed a number of Dixckens’ works including the ghost story The Signalman and observations on Victorian Life Sketches By Boz.

“Dickens is such a rich author that it’s great material to work with,” enthuses Harries. “He understands character. He understands people. He writes them so well, that as actors they are a joy to play.”

For their autumn tour Common Ground are taking a new adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop to small theatres, village halls and community centres.

Julian Harries and Eloise Kay in The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS Julian Harries and Eloise Kay in The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS

“It’s important to get theatre out into the towns and villages,” says Pat Whymark, “and Dickens is a brilliant storyteller, so you can’t lose really.

“The Old Curiosity Shop was the first novel I read and I just loved it. It started a massive love affair – I read everything and it’s continued. I’m still getting through stuff like American Notes and I’m sure I’ll read Italian Notes at some point.”

She says, rather shame-faced, that there’s only one major novel she hasn’t read and that was Pickwick Papers, the book partly written in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. “I started it and then put it down because I didn’t really get on with it.”

Julian pretends to be horrified: “Oh, come on, Pickwick is very jolly. Everyone runs around being very silly and they get into very funny scrapes...” But, Pat remains unconvinced. “I didn’t get the old boy’s club feel to it,” she pauses. “Perhaps another day.”

Pat Whymark and Julian Harries in rehearsal for The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS Pat Whymark and Julian Harries in rehearsal for The Old Curiosity Shop. Picture: COMMON GROUNDS

Nevertheless Dickens remains the pairs favourite author and The Old Curiosity Shop is a particular favourite. “I found it jaw-droppingly good. It’s one of the most extraordinary reads I’ve ever come across. It’s so visual, sensual in terms of its language and it’s ability to conjure up sounds and smells in your imagination and of course, his aptitude to create real people and have them come off the page.

“And that’s the challenge, to put a novel of such depth on the stage. It’s not the fattest novel by any means but it will still need an awful lot of pruning for it to fit into a two hour play.”

She says that the art of a good stage adaptation is to stick to the principal characters and focus on the central story. “Because the story was originally published in installments, there is a certain amount of episodic padding which can be removed. It’s great for colour but it doesn’t affect the story at all.”

Julian adds that The Old Curiosity Shop makes for a great stage play because the cast is limited. “There are just a few leading characters in this. We would love to do Domby and Son but there are at least a dozen essential characters and we just couldn’t do it.”

He says that one of the joys of Pat’s adaptation is that Little Nell and her grandfather’s journey is filled with grotesques and larger-than-life curiosities. “It’s very theatrical and lends itself to the stage.”

Pat adds: “It’s a bit of a pilgrim’s progress and the journey, to escape the villain Quilp, is filled with some of the most outrageous characters – some threatening, some benign.”

Julian says that there is also a lot of humour in the play and Dickens is an absolute master at striking that balance between pricking the conscience of the audience and making them laugh. “We also have to make room for songs because there are loads of songs in the show, which all helps to tell the story.

“All we can do is hope we do it justice.”

The cast has been assembled with a mix of new faces and Common Ground regulars. Julian Harries will be joined on stage with familiar co-star Joe Leat and also returning, to play Little Nell, is Eloise Kay, last seen as Christine Daae in Phantom Bantam of The Opera.

New faces include talented actor-musicians Ivan Wilkinson and Tristan Teller – whose violin skills were seen and heard by millions when he gave a riotous solo performance for the grande finale of Strictly Come Dancing last year.

The Old Curiosity Shop, adapted by Pat Whymark & Julian Harries, will be touring across East Anglia from October 25 to November 25. Full details: or 07807 341364

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