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Why this Ghost is the English accent police

Today, like yesterday, was spent on stage for the first time, this time for Act II of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 5–21, 2008). Like putting Act I on stage yesterday afternoon, the process has been start and stop, start and stop, as we try out the blocking we’d already rehearsed for the past two or three weeks.

For some reason, today seemed to go relatively painlessly. At least that’s so from my viewpoint, I didn’t get a chance to have a chat with Susan Dawn Carson, our director, after the rehearsal to see how she perceived it.

Perhaps this ease was because we’d already seen the stage, had already seen most of the big flies, had already carted other scenery and props on and off stage.

For me and the Ghost of Christmas Future, it was our first time on stage on our stilts. Piece of cake you might say, but we suddenly realized that the orchestra pit was yawning open at the front of the stage. We don’t want to fall in, that’s for sure. So we practiced walking around the “safe” part of the stage, going through our own blocking and making sure we understood the sight lines. No costumes today though, it’ll be next weekend when we kit up for good. I must say, on both our behalf, that we’re getting a lot steadier on the stilts, at least compared to a week ago when we first started using them.

Another part of the rehearsal process is concentrating on our accents. The story of “A Christmas Carol” is set in very early Victorian London — Dickens wrote it in 1843 and Queen Victoria had only come to the throne six years earlier — and so of course we have to have English accents. Two types of English accents too: there’s essentially the middle class, exemplified by Scrooge and his nephew and their relatives, and the working class, typified by the Cratchits and by the tradesmen. We’re making things very simple here: the working class accent is Cockney and the other would be known as Home Counties in England, a posher accent with drawn out vowels and missing Rs.

Today we were encouraged to speak “English” all the time at rehearsal, even in the Green Room (the room that the actors use to relax in when they’re not on stage). The entreaty was, to be honest, not well followed today: I’ll have to be more vigilant about making sure the cast continue practicing.

And why me? Why am I the accent police? Well, if you’ve seen me in previous productions, you’ll already know. I’m English. I’m hopeless at American accents, and so much so, directors tend to let me speak with an English voice. (For example, cast your mind back to “Arms and the Man” at Theatreworks a year ago. I played Major Petkoff, and had this speech about how dirty the English were. It was all the more funny because I was speaking in my normal voice.) So, by default, I’m the voice coach for this production.

All in all, as I said, the rehearsal was a success today, I think. Less than two weeks to go before opening on Nov. 30 though, so there’s no time for complacency.

We have Monday and Tuesday off — but have to continue running lines on our own — and our next group rehearsal is Wednesday. In the meantime, during these two days off, I’ll talk more about the story and how we got as far as we have.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (aka Julian M Bucknall)