Cricket on the Hearth

Here’s a riddle – how long does it take for a one-off to become a tradition?   I don’t know the answer, but I’m rather hoping that because we have now twice had a dramatic reading of a Christmas story we are near to establishing it as an annual event.

Four years ago, I was sitting in St Michael’s Church in Blewbury enjoying a spirited reading of “The Wind in the Willows”, when it occurred to me that Upton had the talent to do something similar. In the past we had intermittent entertainments on a theme, a selection of readings and often music brilliantly devised by Peter Gardiner, and of course made all the better by home-produced food,   In the mists of antiquity we had even had a revue or two, and even a selection of one-act plays.   But the time and energy required to repeat such occasions seem no longer to be available; surely reading a story to a sympathetic audience was worth a try.

The first choice was obvious – an abridged adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, to be produced around the pantomime season.   Despite the willingness and energy of the Burrows, we failed to produce even a cast in the first year, and abandoned it. In 2014, it happened, and although we knew we were under-rehearsed, and although it exhausted Hatty and Richard and their family, it was an undoubted success.   We were inundated by requests from at least two villagers for the date of the next performance.

I set about finding a suitable story. Thanks to the world wide web, I was able to research a huge number of possibilities.   I wanted to keep to the Christmas period still, so that limited the subject matter.   Many I rejected because they were patently religious, and I was looking for a broader base; some I abandoned because I didn’t think we had enough readers who could manage the accents; some I felt too serious, others not serious enough. Eventually, I returned to the collection of stories usually titled the “Christmas Books”. There I found “The Cricket on the Hearth”, apparently more popular than “A Christmas Carol” when it first appeared, and with all the sentiment and humour and suspense expected of Dickens.   It had been made into at least two films, but I did not trace a stage adaptation, so that I had to do myself.   The original was 80 pages long, and I abridged about 3 pages a night – do the division! But a script was produced, which, much more by luck than talent, could be read aIoud in about 90 minutes.

Casting and Rehearsals started in good time, but were plagued from the start. The only time all of the readers were present together was on the night of the performance! Three of the cast were on crutches on the night, one after an accident, one after an operation, one because she always is. Three original cast had to drop out through illness – one returned to take a smaller part. One role was eventually played by our third volunteer; another took over a part without ever being able to attend a rehearsal.

So it could have been chaos. And yet, thanks to the quality and talent and dedication of all involved, and thanks to an audience who willingly suspended disbelief and allowed themselves to be entertained, it worked.   We made over £200 for the Friends of St Mary’s, the readers delighted in performing, and everyone who spoke to me enthused over the whole project. Granted, those who didn’t like it probably kept quiet!

There are three more tales in the Dickens collection, and I’m reading at the moment a newly published book which the reviewer says is good for all children aged 9 to 90.   So perhaps we shall be back in 2016 – and will our story-telling then be one of Upton’s Christmas traditions?

Malcolm Wright