Theatre Alibi with Exeter Northcott & Oxford Playhouse

Curiosity Shop (2013)

Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop revisited. Adapted by Daniel Jamieson.

Curiosity Shop Writer’s Note

The Old Curiosity Shop was written and published by Charles Dickens in weekly instalments in a magazine called Master Humphrey’s Clock between April 1840 and February 1841. It has seventy three chapters freighted to the gunnels with the colour and particularity of Victorian life.

So why are we setting our version in the present day?

As we are telling the story with a two-hour stage play, it felt like some sort of radical treatment was called for. A translation to the here-and-now seemed one way to throw the novel in the air. And you don’t have to look far in the book for contemporary resonance; addiction, homelessness and sexual predation all heave into view as readily as they might on television or in a newspaper any day this week. Most resonant to me seemed the way in which the young people in the story are constantly frustrated and betrayed by the weakness and malice of an older generation. The association feels painfully acute at a time when youth unemployment is at an all-time high and young people must now pay for their education and compete for opportunity much more fiercely than their parents ever had to.

But no Dickens novel is ever just about social issues. There’s also always a characteristic delight in the eccentric and the wry. There are a thousand and one oddities in The Old Curiosity Shop you might only imagine living and breathing in the sooty atmosphere of 1840s Britain. Codlin and Short the itinerant Punch and Judy men, for example, and Mrs Jarley and her horse-drawn, travelling waxworks show. How do they fit into a modern adaptation?

Several years ago I was inspired by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Turner Prize-winning exhibition, Folk Archive, a compendium of contemporary popular art from the UK. Apart from being a fascinating and hilarious collection of such diverse cultural treasures as allotment scarecrows, ice-cream vans, gurners, smoking competitions, carnival costumes and prison tattoos, it opened your eyes afresh to what a curious country we still live in a hundred and seventy years after Dickens wrote The Old Curiosity Shop.

So, one of the great pleasures of adapting the novel has been to try and look at contemporary Britain with something of Dickens’ eye for the perennial absurdity and colour of human life as well as its tenderness and injustices. Who are the Quilps and the Nells of 2013? Where is the Curiosity Shop to be found in London today and what does it sell?

But yet another delight has been to appreciate the timeless appeal of the story and its characters. They still spring out of the pages to move and amuse us nearly two hundred years after Dickens took up his goose-feather quill and committed them to paper.

Daniel Jamieson

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