Happy Birthday, Chuck

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Now I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Charles. As well as being an absolutely brilliant writer, he helped me to get my start in the business.

The first theatre play I wrote that was professionally performed was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Lion & Unicorn theatre in Kentish Town, directed by the wonderful Mr Ray Shell.

It did well. Lots of lovely reviews, including a four-star in Time Out. So. Not too shabby then.

The year after, I adapted Oliver Twist, which Ray also directed. (And while I’m on the subject of Oliver Twist: Nancy is not a prostitute.) Again, great reviews, an extended run.

And one or the other of them has been performed in London every year since I started writing professionally.

So anyhow, I got to thinking. And what I thought was this:

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth this year. A centenary, no less. Some of you out there might want to do something to celebrate that and not have the wherewithal to pay for a script, or know anyone local who wants to write one.

Mr Dickens has done well for me over the last few years. I’d like to return the favour. So firstly, here are the scripts.

Oliver Twist
A Christmas Carol

Have a read.

If you like them, and you’d like to put them on in the centenary year, then I’ll waive my fees. So any performances in 2012 will be completely free, no matter how large or small the production. (Well, apart from the cost of putting on the show. But that’s your own problem, and one that I’m certain that you’ll be able to cope with magnificently.)

You’ll still need to obtain a licence to perform the play (email me for more details about this) but if you put one of these two plays on in 2012 there’ll be no writer’s fee.

And I’d love the chance to see it if I can.

Nancy, BTW, is not a prostitute.

At least, not in the way that we understand the word.

During my research for Oliver Twist, I came across something that gave me pause. To wit, that Nancy is often referred to in reviews and literary criticism as being a prostitute.

Thing is, though, I read the book several times. And I was buggered if I could find any actual evidence pointing that way. The passage in the book that usually gets quoted as proving this runs so:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. Being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

Come on. Really? That single passage is the only evidence in the entire book? That, my friends, is a stretch.

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence against. Nancy says to Fagin “I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this! I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since.”

So she states quite clearly that her profession is thief. Not prostitute.

And yet everyone thinks she is. Why?

I managed to chase it down, in the end, to the introduction to the 1841 edition. Dickens himself says it. “That the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.”

So Dickens says that she’s a prostitute – and then puts no evidence for it in the book. The boys are shown picking pockets, Fagin being a fence, Sikes being a murderer, and yet Nancy’s purported profession is never shown or stated within the book.

Seems more than a little odd, doesn’t it?

The answer finally came from The London Underworld in the Victorian Period – a selection of contemporary writings on crime in Victorian times. And there it is on page 83, at the end of the section on prostitutes.

“The last head in our classification is ‘Cohabitant prostitutes’.”

The book then goes on to define a cohabitant prostitute. It’s someone who moves in with a man without being married to them. Someone who has sex before marriage – and continues to do so. A kept woman, as the old phrase has it.

As Nancy is.

Proof? Fagin visits her in Bill Sikes’ apartment. Where she lives.

A thief, yes. But not a prostitute in the way we would use the word. Nancy is just a woman who lives with her boyfriend, and is supported by him.

And is deeply, tragically, fatally in love.

Buy now, while stocks last!

So I’ve adapted Dickens again.

This year’s Christmas show at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town is Oliver Twist.

Already, more tickets have been sold before opening night than for any other show since Giant Olive moved in a year ago. And there’s still a fortnight before the show goes up.

There’s a great cast, including Eddie Kingham (who starred as Scrooge in last year’s production of A Christmas Carol) as Fagin, and I can tell you now that man is doing sterling work. Watch him before he gets famous. And Ray Shell is again working wonders with the directing.

Also? Wipe the memory of the musical from your heads. This is going back to the raw source material, and it can be a dark and nasty place.

Previews start on Monday 30th November at eight of your earth pounds, going up to twelve quid a couple of days later, and tickets are on sale now.