Tag Archives: A Christmas Carol

Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

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E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

bilston carol

 


Like The Dickens

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Crescent Theatre,  Birmingham, Friday 9th December, 2016

 

Every year I see at least one show based on the quintessential Christmas story, some of them better than others.  I am happy to report this new adaptation by Alan K Marshall is definitely one of the better ones.  Making judicious use of Dickens’s words, the script captures the spirit of the book, which, at heart, is a ghost story as much as it is social commentary.  The story of the redemption of one man still has the power to move, when handled properly, and, sad to relate, the indictment of society and its treatment of the poor and needy is all too relevant almost 200 years later.

Andrew Lowrie delivers Scrooge’s grumpiness, his sour humour and his fear, as the miser goes on his spiritual journey.  His delirious joy in the final scenes is marvellous – Scrooge has rocketed to the other end of the spectrum.  Other standout performances include Nicholas Brady, a handsome and convivial Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; Chris Collett as Jacob Marley – in one of the show’s scariest moments, he makes a dramatic entrance; and Tony Daniels’s Bob Cratchit grieving over Tiny Tim is heartrending.  Standout scenes include the opportunists selling off Scrooge’s effects, played to perfection by Charwoman (Catherine Kelly – who also gives a lively performance as Fred’s Mrs), Laundress (Judy O’Dowd) and Old Joe (Ivor Williams); and the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bob Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are impressive – Production values are high; the team have gone all-out to make the most of their resources to create some ‘wow’ moments.

Kenny Holmes’s lighting design is especially effective, ranging from dim pools of Victorian candlelight to the more dazzling special effects that give the supernatural events such impact.  Dan O’Neill’s set serves as exterior and interior for all the scenes, complemented by fly-ins and roll-ins.  The action is continuous and fluid.  Alan K Marshall, directing his own script, wisely uses action for storytelling as much as Dickens’s words – wordless moments are equally as revealing of character as lines of dialogue.  He handles crowd scenes well and delivers a couple of surprises along the way.   Ghostly animation, projected across the walls, adds to the atmosphere.

Jennet Marshall and Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on, depicting the period as well as a kind of Christmas-card Victoriana, as characters’ colourful outfits contrast with Scrooge’s dour appearance and the general darkness of the age.

Music in the form of classical arrangements of carols works better in some scenes than others.  At times, I find it too grandiose for the on-stage action: the dance at the Fezziwigs’, for example, could do with being lighter and sparer, more folksy.  A moment when a voice offstage sings The First Noel unaccompanied while the grieving Cratchits traipse across the scene is all the more powerful, demonstrating that sometimes less is more.

Overall this is a stately production with some strong ideas that make it a fresh but faithful version of a story that still speaks to us today.  A warning against hardening our hearts against our fellow man and also of the dangers of ignorance could not be more timely in this small-minded, inward-looking, ‘post-truth’ age.

scrooge

Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 

 


Lacking in Spirit

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.

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Ebenezer Good

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 23rd November 2012

Director and dramatist Theresa Heskins adds her version of Dickens’s classic tale to the countless others that have gone before it. The story is so well-known there can be few who attend this production who have not already come across it in one form or another. Amazingly, this is not a drawback. You might think this is a matter of the telling rather than the tale, the way the story is told rather than the actual, familiar material, but both form and content are powerfully represented in this magical and affecting production.

As the New Vic’s resident artistic director, Heskins is in her element working in-the-round. She has adapted the story into a piece of narrative theatre, with cast members sharing the scene-setting descriptions, but she also uses those actors to supplement the scenery as physical objects themselves. This is stylish and fun, to be sure, but the approach also works as a metaphor for the way Ebenezer Scrooge treats people as objects, of his renouncement of their humanity.

The stage is kept busy with beggars, carol singers, revellers, children and all the rest of them, come and go, but the centre of attention is Paul Greenwood’s layered performance as Scrooge, the bitter, sarcastic curmudgeon who is reminded of his own humanity through memory and prophecy. When Jacob Marley steps up to where the door knocker is, it is Greenwood’s reaction that makes it work. We share his delight when he watches his nephew and guests enjoy parlour games. We feel his joy at waking up and realising he hasn’t missed Christmas Day… He is the focus of this production, reminding us that there is more to Scrooge than the stereotypical Grinch-like image.

The entire cast is a slick and well-rehearsed engine. Hannah Edwards makes a cheery and fresh-faced Ghost of Christmas Past, playfully taking Scrooge back to his childhood days in scenes I always find moving. Antony Jardine’s Ghost of Christmas Present is infectiously merry, in a larger-than-life laughing-out-loud performance that proves you don’t need to be padded up in order to represent ho-ho-ho jollity and good cheer. The Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come are a trio of eerie skeletal wraiths – the show uses puppetry sparingly but effectively; Tiny Tim is a little wooden boy, delicate and vulnerable, but denied any chance of mawkishness and sentimentality.

Bryn Holding as Nephew Fred has a hoot of a laugh that effuses bonhomie. Mark Donald appears as Young Scrooge, hardening his heart against the one girl that loves him – the error of Scrooge’s ways could not be made clearer. There is the imagery of being caught up in a web of his own creation, just as Marley is enchained by the selfishness he perpetrated in life. The folly of preferring money to people is all too prevalent in our day and age. Benevolence is not just for Christmas.

This is a magical, inventive production that allows the original story to have its impact all over again. I was in tears before the interval and infused with a rosy glow long after I left the auditorium. It is well worth the trip to Staffordshire. I hope more people will make the trip and enjoy the ride.


A Christmas Turkey

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Garrick Theatre, Lichfield, Thursday 29th December, 2011


Neither a pantomime nor a straight dramatisation of Charles Dickens’s classic story, this production has the air of having been written by alien robots trying to assimilate themselves into British culture. The only thing that doesn’t make an appearance along the way is a kitchen sink.

It begins with an overlong overture – when the music is pre-recorded we really don’t need to hear it at length. It was like being put on hold at Santa’s workshop. Then we were treated to an interminable medley of Christmas tunes as the characters filed on to introduce themselves. Two of them broke out into a spot of ice-skating. Another wheeled on a cart so that the three puppet pigs sitting on it could mouth along. Yet another brought on a box painted to look like a barrel organ, just so a raggedy monkey puppet could flail around. The Cratchit family children, all drawn from the local area, bounced in place for minutes on end – the stage was soon crammed with actors and some of the most amateurish choreography ever to grace the boards. But what really annoyed me in these opening moments, and was to continue to do so throughout the evening, was the mannered pronunciation of some of the characters, making them sound like Sybil Fawlty answering the telephone. This produced an amusing side-effect on the song lyrics. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmarse” for example.

Tiny Tim (an enthusiastic Alex Thompson-Carse) was taller and more robust than most of his siblings and had their share of stage presence too.

At long last, Scrooge (The Bill’s Graham Cole) made his first entrance. The audience didn’t know whether to applaud, boo and hiss, or cheer. Some of them did all three. Most of us sat in silence. Cole’s cantankerous miser was too affable from the outset, somewhat like Alexei Sayle impersonating Stephen Fry in a Jimmy Savile wig. He relished his nastier putdowns and spoke them with a twinkle in his eye. He may as well have held up a card at the end of each line, saying LOL. This meant, of course, his transformation to the world’s most sociable fellow, was lacking in impact – when we eventually got there. First there was an apparently endless stream of turgid songs and dances to get through.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Ian Adams) first appears as a door knocker. This was potentially a very effective moment but it was thrown away. Scrooge took it in his stride and went indoors. The ghost then appeared projected on the mirror above the fireplace before manifesting himself in person to Scrooge, who invited him to sit down, merely to allow the use of a chair levitating trick you can see coming a mile off. Marley won’t go without a song and dance, culminating in a mock-Thriller routine by sundry others in Hallowe’en masks and a sudden modern turn to the backing track. There is even the Countdown clock thrown into the mix. It is as startling as it is inappropriate and unnecessary. After this, Scrooge mutters “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” and beds down in his four-poster.

The Ghost Of Christmas Past (Ian Adams) shows up, a butch drag act, like Julie Goodyear via Royston Vasey. She takes Scrooge back to his schooldays and an ill-advised comedy routine cobbled together from Christmas cracker jokes. This is the production’s biggest problem: the jarring changes in tone and intent. By all means stage a knockabout comical version, corny or otherwise (the wonderful Oddsocks Productions did a few years ago and it was one of the funniest shows I have ever seen) or go for a more traditional mix of the sentimental and the supernatural, but don’t try and do both. If you try to give us everything, we come away with nothing.

Scrooge as a young man is played by Owain Williams who is given the chance to belt out a couple of numbers. This is all very impressive – he can sing and emote – but the sudden improvement in quality is as though someone has switched the channel. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of this ramshackle romp. His rendition of “Mother of Mine” in the graveyard was a bizarre moment, not without skill, it has to be said, but by this point I was getting hysterical from shock. I hope Mr Williams’s next job is in a more coherent production that allows him to shine.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ian Adams) casts an imposing but jovial figure until you realise that beneath his flowing robe, he’s standing on a flight of stairs. It would have been better if he’d been on stilts, I thought at this point. No, scratch that. It would have been better if he’d been on fire. He shed his voluminous robe to reveal a Santa outfit, came down the stairs and performed a workmanlike tap dance with some of the chorines. This was village hall material at best.

Scrooge’s housekeeper, in a future Christmas, takes Scrooge’s bedsheets and curtains to sell to a fence. Cue Fagin with a handcart, singing “My Yiddishe Momma”. The pair strike up a bargain before launching into an ear-blistering rendition of “Easy Street” from Annie. Three letters sprang to mind: Two effs and an ess.

Graham Cole kept his energy levels up, battling valiantly against the backing track. His best lines were those lifted directly from Dickens. Given better direction from Ian Adams and a more consistent script by Ian Adams, Mr Cole could have had us in the palm of his hands.

Are you detecting a pattern here, the same name cropping up? Not only did Mr Adams portray all the ghosts, he wrote and directed the bloody thing. A Jack of all trades, and a Renaissance man of none. How Ernie Wise of him! But what was unWise was the lack of consistency in approach and execution. Tiny Tim was robbed of his final moment and most famous line. He didn’t even get a solo bow, poor mite. Instead we get a bit of narration by Scrooge during a blackout, ending with “It’s Chrissssstmaaaas” Noddy Holder style, before the cast swan on in contemporary, holiday-camp-entertainers-in- tinsel get-up for an extended medley of yet more Christmas songs, complete with snow dropping on the stalls like so much turkey shit. They were reluctant to let us leave and I’ve never fought my way to the exit with more fervour. I apologise to any of the good citizens of Lichfield who may have received my elbow in their eye during my one-man stampede.