Playing Scrooge is women’s work

Broadway star Rachel Izen is playing Scrooge in a London theatre - the first woman to take the role


Last week Rachel Izen made theatrical history. She was the first woman to play the role of Scrooge in a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which opened at the Bridge House Theatre in south east London last Tuesday.

Her achievement is all the more notable when you consider that a second and different show featuring a female Scrooge, played by Sally Dexter opened on Friday at Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s clearly a concept that has found its moment.

“It’s about time,” says Izen, who is relishing the challenge of playing a gender-neutral version of Dickens’ cold-hearted miser. “ After all, for hundreds of years in the theatre we’ve had actors playing different genders. “ In fact, she points out, the cast is small and all the other performers play multiple roles across genders. “It’s the theatre, so you suspend disbelief.”What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in such a quintessentially Christmassy play? For Izen, the message is as much about politics as religion. “It’s about socialism,” she says. “Its message is very appropriate in these days . It’s about how Scrooge learns to think of the greater good.”

Izen grew up in Sidcup, Kent, daughter of two performers. Her mother was an opera singer, her father, Ralph Izen, a trumpeter who played on the Beatles’ hit, Hey Jude, and on the soundtrack for Star Wars. Her mother wasn’t Jewish and Izen had a non-religious background, but nevertheless she identified strongly with her father’s Jewishness.

“I do take after him in looks, emotions and mannerisms.” At school, “everyone thought I was Jewish,” which sometimes led to name-calling. “The bigotry made me cling to my heritage.”

Jewish culture was passed on largely through the medium of food — her grandmother’s chopped liver in particular. Challah and “proper beigels” came from the East End, where her father grew up.

This Jewish base was built on when Izen went to live in New York, and was invited to celebrate festivals with colleagues and friends. “I was more and more connected to my Jewish heritage.” She had to fight for four years to get a green card, at great expense, but once obtained, achieved her dream of appearing on Broadway, mostly in musical theatre, taking leading roles in Mary Poppins and Les Miserables.

“On Broadway, actors are treated like royalty,” she says, “in the UK we’re much more humble and down to earth”. But eventually she returned to London, where she played alongside Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, as the mother of Fanny Brice. “She’s a good old Jewish lady — I enjoyed getting my teeth into her mannerisms.” 

A Christmas Carol is on at the Bridge House Theatre until December 22.


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