Flamboyant thespian Simon Callow is talking about his lifelong love affair with the works of Charles Dickens. “It all started when I was 13 and I had chickenpox,” says the hugely acclaimed actor.
“It was the most awful thing, you are constantly scratching. When I was in the throes of this terrible condition, my grandmother gave me a copy of The Pickwick Papers - and I never scratched again.”
The 62-year-old, who has starred in such popular films as A Room With A View, Four Weddings And A Funeral and Shakespeare In Love, has a well-established relationship with the Victorian author, having played him in Doctor Who, written about him and performed his works on stage and screen.
“His writing is so generous and funny and compassionate,” says Callow. “Dickens was angry about all the things we feel angry about, like social injustice.
“I became fascinated by the man when I did An Audience With Charles Dickens and realised what an altogether exceptional man he was.
“He was active in the world, not just writing, fighting causes and making speeches, but performing as an actor all over the country up to an incredibly high level and was held to be a great actor. This is an uncommon lifestyle for an author.”
After a sell-out London run, Callow brings his latest Dickensian production, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, to the King’s Theatre next week.
Comprising two, one-man plays, this absorbing theatrical event sees the award-winning actor tell the stories of Dr Marigold, a travelling salesman who adopts a little deaf and dumb girl, and Mr Chops, a freak show turn who wins the lottery and a place in society.
Adapted by Patrick Garland, these stories, which were hugely popular when Dickens himself performed them on his popular reading tours, provide a masterly blend of the comic, bizarre and poignant that is classic Dickens.
“We did it at the Edinburgh Festival three years ago and it was the first time in more than 150 years that anyone had done it,” says Callow. “We did it quite simply with a minimal set. I just stood up and did them. We decided we had to rethink it and give it a proper setting.”
For this new production, Callow and his team made some radical changes. “It has been redesigned, rewritten, restaged, rethought and redirected,” he says. “We’ve got it to exactly where we wanted it to be - and we’re constantly finding new things about it. They are just little miracles.”
For all his love of Dickens, Callow feels that the nation’s favourite novelist was a terrible playwright. “He wrote such dreadful plays in his early years,” he opines. “But he took his short stories and turned them into public readings and made them into a dramatic form that he was an absolute master of.
“I think Dickens does have a huge resonance with people. Dr Marigold is a powerful piece of writing and he knocked it off in two days. It’s an extraordinary piece about child beating and insanity and a deaf and dumb girl, all bound up in an incredibly fast-moving, realistic narrative.
“Every time I’ve done it, it has moved the audience and made me cry. No other writers have done that. If you don’t move the audience, I think you have failed.”
And Callow feels that being in a one-man show has many advantages, “communication with the audience being one them,” he explains.
“It is totally in my hands and they trust me, they give up two hours of their life to me and Charles Dickens.”
Some actors would feel pressure performing alone, but not Callow, who is famed for putting on mesmerising, tour-de-force performances almost every time he takes to the stage.
“I don’t feel that performing alone is pressure as such,” he says. “It just means I have to be 100 per cent there all the time.
“It’s very demanding and takes a great deal of planning, but I wouldn’t say that I feel pressure on stage.”
Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 2.30pm, £14.50-£27.50, 0131-529 6000