First published in 1844, The Chimes (A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In) was the second in Charles Dicken’s series of five Yuletide-themed novellas – the first being the perennially popular A Christmas Carol. Like its predecessor, it features valuable lessons being taught via visions; this is a more explicitly political parable, however.
In respect of David Willis’ adaptation, staged in St John’s Church, a stone’s throw from Chapter in Cardiff, the drama began on the day of the press show. Lead actor Matthew Jure suffered an injury, and was advised by doctors not to perform; in the event, he spoke his lines from the pulpit, while his place in the performance space was taken by director Judith Roberts – a hastily improvised solution which worked surprisingly well.
As we wait for the play to begin, the sound system plays poverty-themed speeches from modern politicians in conjunction with conventionally devotional organ music. We are already aware that as well as professional actors, the cast includes people who are affected by homelessness.
The central character is porter (or freelance messenger) Toby “Trotty Beck” (Jure/Roberts), a poor widower who is looked after by his solicitous daughter, Meg, played by Lucy Benson Brown, and her conscientious, hard-working fiancé, Richard, played by Gruffydd Evans.
Trotty is teased by a trio of fine gentlemen (Dafydd Emyr, Rhys Parry Jones and Fergus Rees) for enjoying a delicious meal of tripe, which might have gone to the even more deserving poor. They then give him a letter to deliver to local politician Sir Joseph Blarney.
We quickly learn that the Blarneys (Rhys Parry Jones and Joanna Brookes) are the kind of philanthropists who embrace good causes for self-serving reasons; and that the message is an instruction to bring the forces of law and order to bear on local trouble-maker Will Fern.
On his way back from delivering the letter, Trotty encounters Fergus Rees’ Will and his young daughter Lillian, played by Olivia Rose Aaron. They are en route to ask the Blarneys for assistance; Trotty warns them against this, and invites them into his home.
That night, the troubled Trotty climbs the tower of his local church (one of two assemblages of scaffolding at either end of the space) to commune with his beloved bells (there is good use of video projection, for those audience members who are in a position to see it). As he dozes, their spirits show him nightmare visions of the future.
These involve various misfortunes visited upon Meg, Richard, Will and Lillian, through continued poverty (alcoholism, suicide, imprisonment, prostitution etc). Meanwhile, the wealthy continue to enjoy lavish parties, and cheerfully take advantage of the misfortunes of others.
Roberts seamlessly integrates the professional cast with the ensemble (comprising Ozzy Aldridge, Gabriel, Anthony Prosser, Mo Sullivan and John Vasey), during interludes in which we see a busy city at work, and hear newspaper stories and political commentary on the subject of poverty and homelessness, both contemporaneous and current; although references to deficiencies in the 21st century benefits system seem jarring and unnecessary, since parallels with the Victorian age are already clear enough.
There is also Conor Linehan’s score, played live by Cathal Synott on keyboards and bells. The songs are effective and resonant, in a style appropriately reminiscent of Lionel Bart’s Oliver – indeed, The Chimes is pretty much fully realised as the kind of musical which could easily grace a conventional stage.
This being Dickens, the villains are inevitably a little cartoonish, but the performances are strong throughout, Brown, Evans, Rees and Aaron particularly affecting as their characters’ lives spiral out of control.
We are relieved, then, to end on a note of optimism (with Jure fit enough to participate in the finale) in a piece which is as much a celebration of human warmth and resilience as an indictment of political systems which thrive on inequity.
Venue: St John’s Church, Canton, Cardiff
Dates: 7th-16th December, 2017
And 19th-30th December 2017 at St. John’s, Waterloo, London SE1