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.