Dickens for Dinner

This post has been contributed by Erin Horáková. Read her previous post on dogs in David Copperfield, co-written with Molly Katz, here.

Shakespeare for Breakfast is a venerable Edinburgh Fringe Festival institution that has been selling out its house for twenty-six seasons and is still going strong. Every year they offer a quality Shakespeare parody, free coffee and a croissant. They don’t need their gimmick, but by God they stick to it. I never regret going, and a Fringe trip would feel incomplete without it.

This year, the team that performs the morning show also gives you the lunchtime Dickens for Dinner. The title introduces something of a controversy, as in the south of England, where many if not most Fringe visitors hail from, the mid-day meal is known as lunch. Calling it dinner, and the evening meal supper or even tea rather than dinner, are far more common in north England and Scotland. These distinctions have class connotations as well as regional ones.

“So it’s not really for dinner, is it?” said my vexed girlfriend, who is very from the Home Counties, of the matinee performance.

“A Northerner will come and eat you if you keep saying that,” I begged.

“But it’s NOT ‘dinner’!” she pressed on, heedless. I’ll miss her.

Shakespeare for Breakfast boasts a seemingly annually-refreshed cast of young people, and yet the show does have a fairly consistent house style. Do the performers write their scripts? Do certain dark masters? I did what any committed journalist would do and asked them on Twitter.

“Hi Erin, everything gets devised within rehearsals with the cast and director, with possible slight updates through the run!” No answer to my queries into these shifting casts’ mysterious origins. I guess they prefer to keep their secrets.

Let’s discuss the most important aspect of the show first: the soup was far better than I had expected. I mean I’ve had nicer soups in my life, sure, but I’ve certainly also had worse. Choice of leek and potato or chicken. The rolls, also fine. I could have wished for a plumper, yeastier little bready dumpling, but what I presume was Aldi’s second-finest was perfectly serviceable. They’re on a budget. I understand.

Shakespeare for Breakfast usually parodies a particular play, mashing it up with something incongruous. Titus Andronicus with Valley Girls, etc. The humour may rely on other Shakespeare, but the key touchstone is most often a specific given text. The performances where the company strays from this tight focus are markedly weaker. See the Disappointment of 2014: “[t]his year, instead of focusing on one play as they are oft wont to do, they take numerous characters from across the works and shove them all on a desert island; Shakespeareland.” Even the slightly weird 2013 Taming of the Shrew with Prince Will and Kate concept went over significantly better, and 2012’s ‘Romeo and Juliet in Geordie Shore’ was simplicity itself. Perhaps my favourite year was 2010’s Lear: “Shakespeare for Breakfast gives King Lear a humorous celebrity make-over. Racing through the major plot points with convincingly amended lyrics from Bonnie Tyler and musical songs, a clap of rap and dose of Mumford & Sons, the musical elements drive the show along and often provide the highlights”. They really should put together a collection of scripts, for posterity, fans (of them and of the Fringe itself), and academic interest.

Dickens for Dinner has adopted a similar adaptational strategy, and it doesn’t really surprise me that they went for A Christmas Carol for their inaugural outing. Of course they did: the Carol is a trope beyond Dickens now, cropping up when someone needs a narrative structure to tell a story about Christmas, a character’s development over time or redemption. However the Carol is, to my thinking, actually not a good choice for a maiden voyage. For one thing, it’s been worked over. The audience doesn’t necessarily have a score of comedic King Lear parodies in mind when it takes in the morning show, whereas we’ve all seen some bowdlerised Carol. It’s not just oft-adapted, it’s been well adapted. You’re not funnier than The Muppet Christmas Carol. Do you really want to court that kind of competition?

Besides, Dickens is already often funny, and Shakespeare isn’t always, and his humour may need some translation for a modern audience. Few productions hit the Globe’s traditional sweet spot of making his 400-year-old jokes seem obvious. Parodying a text that already has strong comedic elements offers a different and perhaps subtler challenge than working with po-faced Lear—judging by the years I’ve seen, I suspect Shakespeare for Breakfast traditionally avoids Shakespeare’s comedies, perhaps for just this reason.

Another Dickens novel might be a bit less universally known than the Carol, but it could also be a source of jokes that haven’t been done to death. And I think a general audience could probably follow a Great Expectations parody. Adaptations and the cultural idea of Dickens have ensured they probably know it about as well as they know Lear. Both get assigned in school. They may never have read the one or sat through the other, but they probably know enough to get some broad jokes about them, and to tolerate some more specific humour thrown in for the fans. It might seem trite to point out that it’s also not Christmas, and that thus a seasonal text sits somewhat ‘Christmas in July’ strangely, but, well, it isn’t and it does.

This Carol parody had an 80s music industry setting, but Shakespeare for Breakfast’s humour is more complex, wide-ranging, audience-interactive and generally pantomimic (in the British Christmas theatre sense, not the mime sense) than its mash-up framework might imply. Bowie, the 80s Ghost of Christmas Present, was particularly fun. I enjoy this company’s fourth-wall breaking meta-jokes about their format and the materiality of the Fringe and theatre-making. As the Guardian outlined in their article series on the economics of the Fringe, the festival has become both a vital part of the theatre ecosystem and an incredibly expensive and risky enterprise. With so much money and career follow-through riding on a show, most companies are understandably terrified of screwing up. Thus few shows are confident and established enough to get away with this kind of self-reflexivity, to do it with the necessary lightness of touch and sense of expansive exploration. These process-based meta-jokes range in quality, but demonstrate a commitment to reading the room and interacting with the audience that can sometimes really pay off—a payoff predicated on the risk of failure. In our showing an audience member was handed a bucket of styrofoam and told to throw a handful every time he heard the word ‘snow’. Performers corpsed as pellets whacked them in the face at appropriate intervals and tried to catch the fool (for none but the foolish and the ignorant dare sit in the first row for any theatrical event that has even a whiff of interactivity about it) out with homonyms.

My partner pointed out that the production could have benefitted from a heavier reliance on the text itself—an involvement that characterises Shake4Break’s best years—and perhaps less engagement with the 80s frame narrative. The references in this particular production might be somewhat alienating for people not well versed in this aspect of British pop-culture. The Fringe does attract a big international audience, and if people from abroad don’t get half your jokes, the audience reaction might be a bit tepid, making the show less fun even for those who do.

The Fringe Guru Review observes that:

The production is frenetic, and the music references come thick and fast. However, by wrapping the story so firmly around the music of the 80s, there is a real risk of alienating part of the audience and destroying the universal appeal that the real Christmas Carol has. The posters advertising the show make no reference to the 80s theme – and neither does its listing – so it is quite probable that much of the audience will come into the show unaware of the setting. It might have been wiser to use a less confining theme or, alternatively, if a few of the specifics were mentioned in the advertising.

Shakespeare for Breakfast, however, never gives away the play they’ve used or the theme they’ve chosen, if they’ve confined themselves to one clear ‘combination’. The Fringe, and a few of the audience reviewers, are essentially asking for Dickens for Dinner to market itself like every other play, rather than like another installment of a known entity, and a Fringe institution that’s earned the right to do whatever it wants with its description. (Also, I’d point out that the Carol’s vaunted ‘universality’ is in large part the result a retrospective effort to reduce the book’s message to a vague Hallmark platitude about seasonal niceness or something rather than a searing political condemnation of specific social processes during the Hungry ’40s. The erasure of the Carol’s particularity in popular memory does not necessarily arise naturally from the ‘genius’ of the text, and is not necessarily something to be praised, so much as a way of reckoning with and taming the text and its author, producing the Liberal Sentimental Dickens, a maudlin apolitical commodity. God bless us, every one.)

While Shakespeare infrequently appears as a character in the morning shows, Dickens was deeply present and exceptionally engaging here as the narrator (and occasionally other parts, as required). This drew successfully on Dickens’ authorial presence in his texts, making the way the Carol works part of the entertainment, exploiting both the original, intentional humour of the narrative voice and the only semi-self-conscious and in part retrospective humour of Dickens’ extravagant showmanship. As one review had it, “[t]he actor playing Charles Dickens, the narrator of the story, puts on a cracking show, fully committing to his cod-Victorian lines and rocking some very energetic poses”. Whatever other part the actor had to play in the show, he would take a moment to announce to the audience that “it is I, DICKENS!” This is, if not a full biographical effort to capture the writer’s character, both funny and a bit fair. Dickens is, after all, one of the most persistently textually present writers I can think of, in keeping with his famous desire to be “a cheerful, useful, and always welcome Shadow” which “may go into any place…and be in all homes and all nooks and corners, and be supposed to be cognisant of everything, and go everywhere, without the least difficulty” (Letters 5.622). Dickens is also stuck as the beleaguered theatrical manager, dealing with (scripted) technical issues, which nicely reflects both his authorial role as narrator and host of the show and his real-life managing of theatre productions, his magazines, his household, and really anything he could get his hands on.

In keeping with the 80s theme, this Dickens wore leather pants. Look. Dickens the historical person dressed like Disraeli and meant it. Only the grace of God prevented the two somewhat similar-looking men from arriving to speak at the same place at the same time, with the same haircut and wearing the same objectively unfortunate canary yellow waistcoat. As Simon Callow says of him during his clerk period, Dickens was “something of a peacock, and took to wearing a Russian sailor jacket and military looking cap.” (Callow then tells us that a man in the street mocked Dickens’ fairly ridiculous hipster get up, whereupon Dickens “punched him in the face, and he was punched back in return” [Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World 33-34]. Fair enough.) Given the slightest opportunity to don leather pants, Dickens would.

Shakespeare for Breakfast has decent years and great years. For me, this was a great year for Shakespeare and an only goodish year for Dickens. The dinner fare wasn’t quite up to scratch. The overarching theme was a bit weak compared to the morning’s surprisingly fruitful Upper Middle Class Gardening Club Macbeth. The 80s Music Industry should have been the more straight-forward theme, but the cast just got better jokes out of the eminently recognisable Keeping Up Appearances insecurities and petty politics of hobbyists. I got bored of Dinner’s Cockney Tiny Tim fast, and in general the jokes weren’t especially memorable. Part of the issue may have been that the audience was perhaps a third of the size of the morning show audience (which is packed like sardines into the same venue). It was a markedly older and less enthused crowd. It’s difficult to perform in a more than half-empty space, or if what audience members you do have aren’t bombastic and receptive. I have trouble deciding the degree to which Dickens for Dinner was a bit flat and the degree to which we, the audience, were. I guess we just weren’t souped up.

I have, however, high hopes for the future of this project. If the team puts on a great show that insists on meaningfully engaging with the plot of a less ubiquitous Dickens title, which is as accessible, even if you haven’t read the source material, as the croissant-bearing Shakespeare parodies, it’ll find its audience. If they build the afternoon show’s reputation, it’ll draw better crowds. If the company keeps working at how to apply their successful parody model to Dickens, they’ll find a way of doing it, like and unlike their handling of Shakespeare. One should remember that twenty-six years of experience have gone into the morning show, and that Dickens for Dinner is something of a new challenge for the company. It wasn’t at all a bad start, and I hope they keep at it so that they can meet the potential of this promising concept. Dickens is a brilliant subject for this kind of panto treatment—possibly more obviously so even than Shakespeare.

Works Cited

Callow, Simon. Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press, 2012.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870. Vol. 5. Ed. Graham Storey and K. J. Fielding. Pilgrim Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

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