A CHRISTMAS CAROL
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2013
Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Dickens’s seasonal classic emphasises its own theatricality. A chorus of spirits in Victorian garb – grubby and dark, unlike the picturesque variety you find on Christmas cards – decide to influence the affairs of mortals (a bit like the gods in Clash of the Titans) and they focus their endeavours on one Ebenezer Scrooge, the epitome of anti-Christmas feeling and misanthropy. The spirits wheel on lampposts, doors and so on, calling for special effects to manipulate each scene. In a way, this allows director Tessa Walker to be rather inventive and, neatly and cleverly, to convey scene changes and depict the more fantastical elements of the tale.
The trouble is this approach robs the story of spookiness and surprise.
Standing in as Scrooge, Jo Servi does a nice line in wide-eyed double-takes, and pent-up aggression to anyone who bids him a merry Christmas. As the spirits show him the past and present, traces of old emotions leak out from his tight-lipped callousness – it’s not so much a change in the man as a rekindling of what is already there, what is in all of us to begin with: our common humanity. Scrooge’s reawakening is a release of suppressed emotion and Servi carries it off well enough with a sprightly song-and dance number.
Marc Akinfolarin’s Jacob Marley intones a stark warning in a beautiful bass voice and there is a lot of energy provided by Roddy Peters as the antithesis to Scrooge, the permanently cheerful nephew Fred.
Jason Carr’s score is very reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, weaving in snatches of traditional carols in a rather discordant way. As Scrooge thaws, the numbers become more melodic and somewhat more memorable.
Ti Green’s set – all bricks and floorboards with a false proscenium arch upstage – echoes the theatricality of the approach and suggests the dingy London streets. I like the fact that it doesn’t change in line with Scrooge’s change of heart. It’s the people, now all colourful and happy, that decorate this environment with Christmas cheer.
The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is an enormous rod puppet, a griffin spreading its tattered wings like a skeletal vulture. It’s a striking image but it’s a cumbersome process getting it on and off and it lacks the humanity of the previous spectral visitors. It’s like the carcass of a Christmas bird picked clean, a sign of austere times to come. It’s handled very expressively but, like the rest of the production, it’s a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination or elicit an emotional response.
The openly artificial approach, efficient and clever though it may be, doesn’t give us a single “how did they do that?” moment to surprise us or fill us with wonder. Instead we get a workable, workday version of the well-known story, performed by a likeable and proficient company, but lacking in that special ingredient to touch us and warm our hearts.