You might not automatically associate Charles Dickens with vintage vinyl, festivals, busking and burger joints, but Theatre Alibi’s new adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop might just change your perception. Featuring malignant loan sharks, bent lawyers and wide boy rappers, Daniel Jamieson’s new adaptation plants the action firmly in today’s world, incorporating a soundtrack spanning the decades from Elvis to Professor Green. The adapter tells Laura Turner more about the tour.
How did you come to work with Theatre Alibi?
I started working with Theatre Alibi as an actor when I left university in 1989. It was for a show called The Withered Arm based on short stories by Thomas Hardy. At first they gave the job to a bloke who could play the accordion and act but he dropped out so they gave job to me instead (I can’t play the accordion)!
So tell me about Curiosity Shop.
Curiosity Shop is Theatre Alibi’s version of a novel by Charles Dickens called The Old Curiosity Shop. In Dickens’s original, the Old Curiosity Shop is an antiques shop owned by Little Nell’s grandfather. In our version, the action has been transplanted to the present and the shop has become a record shop selling mostly old vinyl. The book is 73 chapters long. The play is 84 pages long!
What drew you to such a huge project?
It felt like it had relevant things to say to people now. It tells the stories of several young people whose lives are undermined by the weakness and the malice of older people. That felt very relevant now because of the tough time young people are having at the moment getting an education and a job. Also, the novel has brilliant characters – very colourful and vivid – that felt like they would work well on stage.
It certainly seems like there’s little “old” about your curiosity shop. Was it an easy transition into a modern context?
It wasn’t always easy but it was always fun! It became a sort of game or a puzzle to imagine what the modern version of a Victorian travelling waxworks show or Punch and Judy were, for example. It was a deliberate decision. Dickens will always feel immediate and relevant if you look at it carefully enough, but setting the story now helped me to inhabit it more fully imaginatively.
What was your journey into writing?
A few years after starting work as an actor, me and several other actors decided we wanted to call the shots ourselves so we agreed to put on a play and discovered how hard it is, and how rewarding. Everyone took responsibility for the job they were interested in – I’d always fancied myself as a writer so I wrote the play. I enjoyed it very much (although found it very scary!), it went well and I’ve never looked back.
Are you very involved in the rehearsal process as a writer?
I’m around in the background, ready to give advice if required, ready to change anything in the writing that doesn’t work, helping to make artistic decisions if I’m asked. Nikki, the director, and I talk very thoroughly before rehearsals so we’re on the same wavelength. But you’ve got to give people room to make the show their own.
Where do your inspiration or influences come from?
I get inspiration from all sorts of places, not all theatrical. I’ve always loved Complicite and some of the work of director Katie Mitchell – I thought The Waves was inspirational. But I also love film – old stuff by directors like Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, new stuff like any Studio Ghibli films directed by Miyazaki, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke – various things. I read a lot of fiction too, all sorts, which I find very inspiring – Cormac Macarthy, Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene, WG Sebald. I’ve also always found art very stimulating in relation to theatre. Artists are such interesting people anyway, but theatre is a visual medium as well as a literary one, so art is very inspirational. Looking at paintings and photos gets my brain working differently.
What’s your advice for aspiring playwrights?
Write as much as you can! Make it as quirky and individual as possible – don’t feel obliged to copy other people to get noticed. Get feedback but don’t get put off – what one person says is never the whole picture. Get in the habit of writing more than one draft of stuff – you can make it much better second time round.
What’s next for you?
Don’t know yet! I’m doing more stuff with Alibi hopefully. I’m adapting a kid’s show for them from a story by Michael Morpurgo called I Believe in Unicorns about a boy growing up in war-torn Bosnia and the importance of books in his life. I’m in the middle of a residency at the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University researching and writing about people with depression, which is harrowing, fascinating and, in many ways, uplifting.
And finally, give us a hint of what audiences can expect from Curiosity Shop?
Hopefully, lots of colour – vivid characters and a vividly told story with lots of Alibi’s characteristic ingenuity. And lots of cracking music too. And a brilliant design! All the ingredients for a good show, I reckon.
Curiosity Shop is playing at the Exeter Northcott Theatre until 16 March, then touring until 27 April. For more information, visit http://www.theatrealibi.co.uk/curiosityshoptour.php.
Image credit: Curiosity Shop in rehearsals by Steve Tanner