On 16th March Ryan Hutton was preparing to go on stage, he’d been in the role of Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses The Musical at The Theatre Royal Haymarket for just over a year, and was loving every second of it. The curtain wouldn’t go up that night, the West End was suddenly closed down as the first wave of Coronavirus swept the country, and Ryan hasn’t been back on stage since. But as Christmas approaches, Ryan’s wishes are about to come true as he prepares to tread the boards again in an innovative new play called, appropriately enough, December.
The play is being produced by Bag of Beard Theatre, of which Ryan is a co-founding member. Fellow co-founder, Alexander Knott has written, and also directs, December. “We formed Bag of Beard Theatre over five years ago, but this is the first time since our first production that we’re all involved, and with Alexander directing me”, Ryan explains.
“Alexander always has the best ideas for stories, and this is a different take on the Charles Dickins classic, A Christmas Carol. It’s such a well-known story, and people will watch it every year, whether that’s in a theatre, cinema, or in their own home, but the story is always from Scrooge’s point of view.”
Bag of Beard’s production will tell the story from Bob Cratchit’s point of view, and will combine theatre and cinema to create a piece that audiences can watch from the comfort of their own home.
“This is like nothing we’ve ever done before, it’s not like other streamed theatre that people might have watched this year”, says Ryan, “this is a play that’s being made specifically for film. It’s been an amazing journey so far because we are learning as we go, and being able to tackle new media is also super exciting. Charles Flint and James Duffy on photography are blowing us away with the things they can do.”
“I would call it a hybrid between theatre and cinema, we want to keep it as theatrical as we can, for example we’ll be playing more than one character, so we’ll be jumping between them as we would on stage rather than using any kind of camera tricks or cuts, but then we can use the camera to be able to get different shots, see different viewpoints, and get really close to the action.”
Ryan knows that A Christmas Carol is a popular choice at Christmas, but thinks there’s probably more to it than people realise, “everyone thinks of A Christmas Carol as this nice Christmas story, but it’s actually quite dark, and you have to go through that darkness to come out the other side.” That theme comes through in December too, as Ryan explains, “this story is hopeful, it offers up the idea that if you work hard enough then there will be a reward, and this year is a prime example of why we need that kind of hope.”
With the industry struggling, it’s a gamble for the company to produce new work this year, “Alexander wrote it this year and the themes of the play lend themselves perfectly to 2020, so it really was now or never, the plan was initially to do it live to an audience, but this filmed version gives us so much more opportunity to create something really unique.”
Ryan admits to initially feeling apprehensive about taking on the role, “First of all, I thought this is forty-five pages of dialogue, and I felt a bit sick! Because we haven’t worked for so long, I had these normal feelings of wondering if I could still do it, but my gut reaction is to always say yes, especially to Alexander, he’s a genius.”
Ryan and Alexander are close friends, and Ryan explains how that makes the rehearsal process a lot easier, “he knows me so well, and we know how each other work, I’ve seen him grow as a director over the last few years, he’s really established himself now, you should see the way he commands the room. Sometimes we don’t need to say anything at all, we can just share a look between us, I truly feel he gets the best out of me as an actor.”
Ryan plays the role of Bob Cratchit, and voices a couple of other characters, while co-star Freya Sharp embodies them, “Freya is brilliant, we both did the Sam Wanamaker Festival at the Globe in our second year of drama school, we’ve kept in touch and we worked together on the Old Red Lion Triptych earlier this year. Working with Freya is awesome, she’s got a tough job with this because she plays multiple characters in quick succession, but she comes at it with such energy, it’ll be like a breath of fresh air for the audience.”
The process of creating this new kind of theatre has been a different experience for the actors and creative team, Ryan tells us, “we’ve been rehearsing it like a play, but we’ll be filming out of sync. In a normal two hander you build up the momentum from one scene to the next but with this you might film a ten-minute scene with a whole range of emotions, then you need to stand down for an hour while the next shot gets set up, I’ve had to learn how to carry the momentum from one scene to the next.”
“The majority is filmed within the theatre space of the Old Red Lion, which has a Dickensian vibe to it anyway, but we’ve also done some shots outside, in a graveyard, and by a canal in North London. The whole idea is to transform the ORL stage to the places that Bob Cratchit goes.”
All of the profits from this production of December will go to Hackney Winter Night Shelter, “the profits going to charity was something we decided on at the very beginning, we’ve had it hard as an industry this year, but there will be people out there who have had it ten times harder, Christmas is for giving and generosity, so it’s our time to give back.”
Despite everything 2020 has thrown at the industry, Ryan remains hopeful, “there’s been so many ups and downs, wondering what the future of theatre looks like, so doing this has been a godsend, just to be able to crack on. It’s been lovely to see the community stick together, which is no surprise, if any industry is going to support each other it’s ours.”
Ryan is looking forward to returning to the role of Rodney in Only Fools and Horses when the production is given the green light, but until then he’s excited to be back with the company where his career began, “this is what made me start doing theatre, this is what makes the fire burn in my belly, you rehearse in small confined spaces, you don’t have a budget for a giant set on a revolve, you have to make it work with what you’ve got, that’s what I love and that’s what we’re doing here.”
December is streaming 20th December 2020 to 5th January 2021 and tickets are on sale from The Old Red Lion Theatre