Adam Long gives Caroline Bishop a glimpse into the offbeat world of Dickens Unplugged…
“It’s very difficult to play an accordion and wear a Victorian wedding dress at the same time,” Adam Long informs me. Not foreseeing this to be a likely occurrence in my own life, I will have to take his word for it.
This unusual problem is one which could only crop up in the life of 46-year-old Long: writer, director and cast member of Dickens Unplugged, the new musical comedy which races through the life and work of Charles Dickens in one hour and 45 minutes, with 106 costume changes for the five-person cast along the way.
“So Matthew [Hendrickson], who is dressed up as a vicar at this point, he’s playing the accordion,” Long continues. “You’ve got Charles Dickens standing on one side of the stage and on the other side of the stage you’ve got this man with a shaved head wearing a Victorian wedding dress and this other man dressed as a vicar playing the accordion. [It’s] not something that you’ll see in any other West End shows – I bet they don’t have that in Marguerite!”
Long laughs, sitting back on his dressing room sofa in the bowels of the Comedy theatre, where he and wife Alex are residing between performances on this matinee day during previews for his new show which, most definitely, is unlike any other in the West End.
It was a few hundred yards down the road from the Comedy, at the Criterion theatre in Piccadilly Circus, where Long’s most famous show was staged for an impressive nine years from 1996. The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a speedy and irreverent romp through the Bard’s back-catalogue, was co-written with the other members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the theatre company he co-founded in his native California in 1981.
He may have left the alternative RSC five years ago, but the ironically-named Long continued to comically condense lengthy subjects, before his increasing interest in musicals, an encounter with revered composer Stephen Sondheim and the whim of a Dickens-loving producer led him to combine his talents and interests into this new musical comedy.
"It’s not something that you’ll see in any other West End shows – I bet they don’t have that in Marguerite!"
“We met with Stephen Sondheim when we were in New York because we wanted to get the rights to Assassins. Alex and I had this great idea that we wanted to have Matt Lucas and Will Young in a version of Assassins in the West End,” Long says, deadpan. “Sondheim was very nice and very encouraging and everything, but he said I should get some experience working with music first before I tackle a Sondheim, which is probably good advice, and then he said then come back to me. So he sort of threw down the gauntlet.”
Looking for a project to get his musical teeth into, Long considered an electric punk version of The Pirates Of Penzance (as only he could) before being enticed by producer Mark Goucher to turn his hand to the work of Victorian author Dickens. It wasn’t the obvious choice for an American brought up on Mark Twain, whose knowledge of this most British of authors extended no further than A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. So Long – who still retains a distinct Californian lilt despite 17 years in Britain – decided to exploit his background to give the show an American twist. All five cast members sport American accents in depicting these very English of characters, and Long’s musical score is based on the “Americana music that has its roots in England and Scotland and Ireland back in the 1800s”. Long explains: “The conceit of the show is that we’re five Californians from Santa Cruz who have come over to show you British how to do Dickens.”
After considerable reading to plug the gaps in his Dickens knowledge – “Luckily, as it turns out, I love Dickens! It would have been a grim chore otherwise” – Long employed his trademark skills to whip Dickens’s most famous novels into the shape of a sub-two-hour show. However, Dickens Unplugged is nevertheless a departure from Long’s work with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, as it combines Dickens’s canon of work with the story of his life. “It isn’t really condensation, it’s actually weaving in and out of his fiction. It’s not like we’re trying to tell the entire story of David Copperfield, but what we’re actually doing is, as you follow [Dickens’s] life you can see how the problems that he is having with his wife Catherine inform what happens to the characters of Dora and David Copperfield in the fiction. It’s a little bit subtler than taking things and cramming them into 30 seconds.” He pauses, and smiles widely. “Though there is a little bit of taking things and cramming them into 30 seconds!”
The second departure is that Dickens Unplugged is an original musical, rather than a play including music, as much of Long’s previous work has been. Writing the score has allowed Long to revisit his somewhat unusual musical roots: “I started off my professional life working for a political action committee by day and performing with an acoustic punk band by night. We were a cross between The Clash and Simon And Garfunkel,” he laughs.
Other experience has included creating a Tony Blair tribute band for a Radio 4 commission and writing the music for a televised condensation of the Star Wars films, Star Wars: Shortened, for Lucasfilm. “We actually wrote a hardcore funk song that was a three-minute-long summation of The Attack Of The Clones. Which is probably the least well known of the Star Wars films and for good reason, but we managed to bring life to it by turning it into hardcore funk; hardcore funk but with a harmonica as well.”
“Luckily, as it turns out, I love Dickens! It would have been a grim chore otherwise”
I get the feeling only Long would attempt such a combination. It is no wonder, given the eclectic leanings of this slight, spectacles-and-sandals-wearing, genial Californian, that his wife, Alex Jackson-Long, says of her husband’s brand of comedy: “It’s a very particular kind of humour.”
As co-director of the show, Jackson-Long – whose experience comes from 20 years as a television comedy producer – was involved in the casting of Dickens Unplugged, which necessitated a breed of actor who was not only on the same humour wavelength as her husband, but able to play musical instruments too. “It’s quite a big ask,” she says. “We’re asking for people to do comedy very well, American accents, and excellent musicians. And actors that can get what Adam likes, and not all actors can do that actually, it’s quite a unique thing.”
Even Jackson-Long didn’t think she would like her husband’s humour when they first met at the Edinburgh Festival. That was in 1991, when Long was performing with the Reduced Shakespeare Company and his future wife was a reluctant audience member. “I didn’t want to see them actually, it wasn’t really my sort of thing,” she smiles. “When we got to the venue the tickets were [gone] but I knew someone at the venue who handed out tickets, and we went to see it and I loved it, even though I’d gone in there wanting to hate it.”
She went on to book the company for a television show she was producing at the time, and, to cut a long story short (sorry), the Californian has stayed in Britain ever since. In 1994, Long opened the London branch of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and, when the couple’s daughter was born five years ago, he quit the company altogether.
Long had intended that to be the end of his condensing career, but such was his reputation that such esteemed clients as Rolf Harris and Lucasfilm came calling. “I was thinking of retraining as a speech therapist, because it was something I’d been interested in. But that was when the phone call from Rolf Harris came in – ‘Can you condense Hans Holbein the Younger’s life into 10 minutes?’. You have to say yes when Rolf phones, and then Lucasfilm phoned after that and you have to say yes to Lucasfilm too.”
“It’s a very particular kind of humour”
After nearly two decades as a British resident, Long says he feels more at home here than in the US, though he doesn’t really fit in on either side of the Atlantic. “I’m just a transatlantic misfit!” he laughs. To explain exactly how he feels, he uses a story once related to him by comedienne and fellow transatlantic misfit Ruby Wax: “She said she grew up on a farm, and she said that when they would get a new cow, all of the other cows would stand in a circle around it and just stare at it, as if to say, ‘we can see that you are the same species as us, but you’re somehow different’. And she says whenever she goes back to America, she feels she’s that cow in the middle, with all the other Americans just sort of staring at her, like, ‘you’re not the same as us’.”
He may feel like the new cow in town from time to time, but Long certainly loves being in London, which he describes simply as “the best city”, and he is pleased to be opening Dickens Unplugged in the English capital first, before, he hopes, taking it over to New York in the future. Unfortunately, given the announcement this week of the show’s early closure (29 June), New York may be an option sooner than he planned.
Whatever happens, you can be sure that whichever city Long finds himself in, he is first and foremost in a unique place all of his own. “Last night we had Uriah Heap take a fall on stage, and as he fell he pulled Dora’s hair off,” he relates. “I was just sitting there and he caught my hair, he went down and he pulled my hair off along with it. The audience was laughing so much we couldn’t carry on.” It could only happen in the world of Adam Long.