Victorian ghost story has modern parallels; The Rep's classic Christmas production has a few modern touches, discovers Roz Laws.
WHAT the Dickens! The Birmingham Rep's new production of A Christmas Carol is still a classic Victorian ghost story, but with several modern twists.
The two youngsters playing Tiny Tim are girls, Marley's ghost arrives in a spectacular flying stunt and the Ghost of Christmas Future is a terrifying puppet.
The cast were even going to be rollerblading at one stage, until director Tessa Walker realised it might be too dangerous.
"We didn't really have enough time to rehearse the complicated choreography - and I had visions of people rollerblading into the orchestra pit," says Tessa, the Rep's associate director, brought in by new artistic director Roxana Silbert.
"The production is firmly rooted in Victorian England, like Dickens' novel, but there are so many modern parallels to the story. It feels contemporary, although I thought the message would come over more strongly if we kept it in Victorian times rather than having everyone wearing trainers and using iPhones.
"The music is contemporary and we could only do some of the effects in a modern theatre.
"I don't want to give too much away and spoil the surprise, but the arrival of Jacob Marley's ghost is something special.
"It's required a lot of technical rehearsal in aerial performing from the actor, Jo Servi."
There's an ensemble of 13 actors, 12 of whom play 50 parts between them. Only Matthew Ashforde plays just one character, Ebenezer Scrooge. He made his professional debut at the age of 10 in the first Cameron Mackintosh production of Oliver! in the West End.
Roddy Peters, who plays Nephew Fred, is from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire and a former pupil at King Henry VIII School.
There's also a large cast of children, including two girls alternating the role of crippled Tiny Tim, who gets about on crutches.
"We tried really hard to find tiny boys, but they were all too tall and healthy looking," remembers Tessa, a former pupil of Earlsdon Primary and Finham Park Schools in Coventry.
"The girls can pass for boys as it's pre-voice breaking, although we're not going to completely disguise the fact they are girls.
"We thought for a long time about whether to use children at all, but I think children in the audience love seeing other children on stage.
"It's a real family Christmas show, though not suitable for under-sevens.
"It has to be a frightening story, that's the point - you have to believe Scrooge's fear.
"All seven-year-olds are different, of course, but I remember that I really loved being scared when I was young.
"The show has some amazing hauntings and has to have these scary moments - if you don't jump, we've failed.
"The Ghost of Christmas Future is a huge puppet, a cross between a bird and a dinosaur, which is petrifying. It's really eerie and creaks when it moves. It's so enormous that we couldn't fit it through the door of the rehearsal room.
"But the show is not all bleak and frightening. I think that's balanced by such a joyous, colourful happy ending, and there's lots of singing and dancing.
"I'd say it's scary but heartwarming."
A Christmas Carol runs at Bir-mingham Rep until January 4. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk.
"The Ghost of Christmas Future is a huge puppet, ' a cross between a bird and a dinosaur, which is petrifying. It's really eerie and creaks when it moves
In rehearsals for A Christmas Carol at Birmingham Rep, director Tessa Walker (above) with Matthew Ashforde as Scrooge and (right) Roddy Peters as Nephew Fred and Angela Wynter as Mrs Dabchick