Molly LYnch, actress as Dickens' mistress, Ellen Ternan. Promo shoot for What the Dickens, by Claire Norburn, The Telling. 23rd August 2023

New play What the Dickens? by The Telling to be performed in Hove this October

Charles Dickens & his Teenage Lover. This is a new show which re-imagines A Christmas Carol, with Dickens cast as Scrooge forced to face his sins. It premieres in Dickens’ favourite holiday destination: Brighton & Hove

The first performance of What the Dickens?: by acclaimed playwright/singer Clare Norburn, her company The Telling, and BAFTA-nominated director Nicholas Renton (Mrs Gaskells’ Wives & Daughters, Lewis, Musketeers) comes to Ralli Hall, Hove on Weds 11 October

Charles Dickens’ reading of A Christmas Carol isn’t going to plan. He finds himself re-cast as Scrooge, with his past, present and future being played out. This is presented by two women he mistreated: his wife Catherine and his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, who was only 19 when Dickens first approached her – at the age of 45.

Clare Norburn, playwright and singer, who grew up in Hove explains:

“In What the Dickens?  I’ve reimagined Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, taking inspiration from the secrets of Dickens’ life. These include his secret mistress, his terrible treatment of his wife and his early life as a boy working in a factory which made shoe blacking, of which he was deeply ashamed. I have also drawn on how unwell and febrile he was in his final years. He put so much energy into his theatrical readings that he would often collapse afterwards in the wings. So I have used all those elements to overlay the familiar story we all know of A Christmas Carol, with Dickens himself being forced to re-evaluate his life and the impact of his actions.”  

The plot is set on Dickens’ final Christmas Eve, 1869. Against his doctor’s orders, he gives one of his acclaimed theatrical readings of A Christmas Carol. But from the moment the lights go down, his life becomes strangely entangled with that of his character Scrooge.

Dickens’ carefully managed image as a family man, who created the very quintessence of Christmas, starts to unravel. He is haunted by the women he mistreated: his wife Catherine, his mistress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan and the mysterious ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They strip aside the jovial public family image Dickens has tried to maintain and force him to face up to his past, present and future. Can Dickens learn from the ghosts, repent and be saved – as Scrooge was saved?

The collision of music and theatre is Clare Norburn and The Telling’s hallmark. The drama is soundtracked by live musicians and musician/actors. They perform colourful Victorian popular songs and street music, haunting carols and lively folk dances. Music is arranged by acclaimed music theatre composer Steve Edis.

Writer Clare Norburn adds, “all writers pour a little of themselves into their characters and there is certainly a bit of Scrooge in Dickens – or Dickens in Scrooge. For example, Scrooge as a boy loves Ali Baba of the Arabian Nights. Dickens took refuge from his miserable childhood in reading and The Arabian Nights was a particular favourite.”

Molly LYnch, actress as Dickens’ mistress, Ellen Ternan. Promo shoot for What the Dickens, by Claire Norburn, The Telling

What the Dickens? aims to empower and give a voice to the women in Dickens’ life who were denied an opportunity to give their side of the story at the time.

The show may be set in the Victorian past, but like all of Clare Norburn’s work, it speaks for today. It speaks for women, and in this show, for victims of celebrities. It is also great fun!

“The story of Charles Dickens is the story of a man who has a public image – and a private life which is at odds with that public image – which is very relevant to today,” Norburn continues. “Sadly, there are many contemporary resonances. For example, the context of #MeToo and recent news stories of celebrities such as Huw Edwards and Philip Schofield. Dickens would never have got away with keeping a mistress and treating his wife so appallingly today.”


“Mesmerising… An austerely beautiful piece about a woman whose faith gave her extraordinary strength and courage.” – Tim Ashley, The Guardian on ‘Vision’ by The Telling

“An exploration of the boundaries between art and life…intelligent… finds new terrain”Arifa Akbar, The Guardian on Clare Norburn’s writing

The Telling will take What the Dickens? across England on a mini 5-stop tour with plans for a longer run next year. The premiere will take place at Ralli Hall, Hove. This has special meaning as Brighton was Dickens’ favourite holiday destination (not to mention his wife Catherine’s refuge when she ran away from him). It is also where writer Clare Norburn grew up.

Tickets are available to book online now at

Weds 11 October, 7.30pm – 9.30pm Ralli Hall, 81 Denmark Villas, Hove BN3 3TH

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.