A very Dickensian tale: Homeless actors star in The Chimes

The Chimes is the festive story Charles Dickens really wanted to be remembered for, and this year it is being staged by a cast including actors who are homeless

“A new heart for a New Year, always!”

This Dickens quote does not have as familiar a ring as “God bless us, everyone!” from A Christmas Carol, but maybe it should have. The sentiment is core to The Chimes, Dickens’ festive follow-up to Carol’s phenomenal success, and the story that the author himself wanted to be remembered for.

The book’s original subtitle: ‘A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In’ teases a tale that is like a spookier and more macabre It’s A Wonderful Life, as Toby ‘Trotty’ Veck is shown what might happen if he loses faith in humanity. Spoiler alert: really horrible things.

Those involved have been able to bring an accuracy and insight that we would not have had

While the fame of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future eclipse The Chimes’ Trotty, his luckless daughter Meg, the dastardly Alderman Cute and the deliciously named Mr and Mrs Chickenstalker, a new production aims to shine the spotlight on Dickens’ message of championing the most vulnerable in society by involving the most vulnerable in society in the play.

Producer and director Judith Roberts explains why she wanted to involve people who have experienced homelessness.

“Meg, the young daughter, finds herself homeless without a roof above her head,” she says. “Rather than have actors pretend to have knowledge of what it is when you really have nowhere to go, we thought it was fitting that we would invite those who are striving to rebuild their lives to become part of the production.

“It has given it an integrity because they have been instrumental in scripting a couple of the scenes, feeding in the contemporary resonances and they have been able to bring an accuracy and insight that we would not have had.”

The Chimes actors
The actors go through rehearsals for The Chimes

Roberts worked with organisations which support the homeless including The Wallich, Huggard, The Passage and St Mungo’s to invite some of their clients who have been involved in drama workshops to participate. The play is being staged in partnership with Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and London through December, with two groups of homeless people joining the ensemble in each city: 13 in Cardiff and 14 in London, some of whom Roberts first met back  in August.

Since then, Roberts has witnessed a transformation taking place during rehearsals. “They are side by side with cast members and holding their own,” she says. “It seems like something Dickens would be happy we were doing. It is challenging, but it is a challenge that isn’t overwhelming; it’s one that they can rise to and enjoy.”

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

During rehearsals in Cardiff, Anthony is enjoying himself: “Big time!” he says.

“I do a lot of singing and I’m a dogsbody as well,” he explains. “It’s given me a purpose, it’s given me something to look forward to. And some discipline – you might not think so [seeing me in rehearsals] but I’m going to have to be bang on when it comes to it.”

Another cast member who has had experience of homelessness is John. Although Dickens was writing in 1844, John still recognises the world he depicted. “In many ways with technology and so on the world has changed, but as for the human condition, I think it’s potentially got worse,” he says.

The Chimes actors

“When Meg is at her lowest point it shows that anyone can get to a very dark place in their life. And it’s also about how your attitude and outlook can affect these things. It also highlights the absolute disparity between those who have and those who don’t have.”

Originally from the North East, John became homeless after a family breakdown.

“Leaving the family home, I ended up with nothing except what I was stood up in and a bag,” he remembers. “But as much as it looked like a harrowing situation I was going to find myself in, the only real difficulty was the lack of contact with my children. That was painful, and it still hurts.”

John suffers from severe depression and had avoided going outside before becoming involved in the play.

“Coming to rehearsals is something that’s kept me going,” he says. “A number of the professional cast have been complimenting me on my abilities. It’s been nice to hear because I have quite a negative outlook on myself a lot of the time. To hear people saying positive things, it allows me to reflect and go, is that true? And I think, maybe it is.

Coming to rehearsals is something that’s kept me going

“It’s been a good experience because it’s also allowed people who might not come into contact with  people who are homeless to find that maybe their perceptions were off.

“I’d like to think that there’d be audience members watching who might not even know which ones are not the professional actors. And that would challenge their perceptions again about what can and can’t be done.”

The Chimes is at St John’s Church, Canton, Cardiff, until December 16, and St John’s Church, Waterloo, December 19-30