Review: A Christmas Carol

by Lynn on January 30, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Noël Coward Theatre, London, England.

Written by Patrick Barlow
Adapted from the Christmas story by Charles Dickens
Directed by Phelim McDermott
Designed by Tom Pye
Lighting by Peter Mumford
Sound by Gareth Fry
Movement by Toby Sedgwick
Cast: Adeel Akhtar
Jim Broadbent
Amelia Bullmore
Keir Charles
Jack Parker
Kim Scopes
Samantha Spiro

Dickens’ story is turned upside down, presented as a rough and tumble production in a Music Hall setting and is true to the spirit of Dickens but with contemporary references that continue to make the story timeless.

The Story
. You know the story. Ebenezer (Bah humbug) Scrooge is the most miserly, cantankerous, unpleasant man in London. He hates Christmas. He refuses his kind nephew’s invitations to come to his house and be entertained by his wife and children. Scrooge refuses. Scrooge bullies and belittles his woefully underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit, a lovely family man with a loving wife and children. Bob has a sickly child named Tiny Tim. The child will not survive the winter if food is so scarce.

To shake Scrooge out of his horrible ways he is visited by three spirits: Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future. Each spirit shows him what he has missed because of his terrible behavior. He is faced with his own regrets and disappointment. He is shown a better life and is shaken by the future, certainly of Tiny Tim. That’s enough to transform him into a decent, loving, accepted person.

The Production
. Tom Pye’s set looks like a cutout framework of an old fashioned music hall set that is too small for the stage. A framed painting of a red stage curtain hangs down from the flies. Stage right is a moveable door frame. Stage left there is other stuff used to set scenes etc.

When the play begins, the movable door frame is rolled out to centre stage. A group of Christmas carolers in Victorian costumes stand at the door, their backs to the audience, singing. They finish the carol and wait for the door to open so they can be given a coin or two for their labors. Nothing. They shift in place. One women in a bonnet turns to us and smiles and turns back. The group sings another carol. They wait for the door to open. Nothing. They sing. Knock on the door. Nothing. They shift, look out to us and blackout.

Scrooge is a financier in this version. He lends money. One woman wants to borrow £5 for Christmas presents. Scrooge wants 100% on the loan. And so he wants £10 by the end of the week. She can’t possibly pay that. So he extends the loan to three months and the interest is £75. The woman signs the agreement, shrinking. Scrooge (Jim Broadbent) smiles.

Bob Crachit sets the scene on Scrooge’s command. He plays seasonal music on a Victrola. He rushes to answers the door in a panic for new customers. To signify that it’s snowing, confetti is thrown on the people standing at the door well. The door is opened and they see Scrooge. His chest of money is enveloped in chains. It’s kept in a dingy room.

The Ghost of Christmas Past and Present are played by women. The hair of the Ghost of Christmas Past is a cone of white as if it is in flames. Christmas Present is dressed like a floozy. She wears a big hooped skirt. Part of the skirt does not quite cover the hooped component so the it looks like the ghost dressed in too quick a hurry to cover everything. Or it could look like the costume was chintzy. Either way it works a treat. The Ghost of Christmas to Come is a spirit in black; hooded with arms that stretch and stretch out. There are of course two actors under all that black material giving the impression that the arm span of the ghost is about 10 feet. Terrific image.

Some characters are suggested by two bobbing bonnets held by a puppeteer. As the ‘characters’ talk, the bonnets bob. Tiny Tim is created by the smallest puppet, with half of one leg missing. Scrooge is taken on a tour of his past by a ghost. To suggest ‘travel, movement’, two puppeteers come up behind the ghost and Scrooge and flip two legs in front of each character and flip the legs back and forth in front as the character actually slides from side to side. Hilarious. This happens several times.

Jim Broadbent (Scrooge) has the greatest time playing the villain but then Scrooge changes and gets redemption. He says that he will fight against greed, graft, materialism etc. and live better. He notes how the rich have prayed on the poor. He looks at the audience and then spits out the word, ‘BONUSES’ and every person in that theatre knows what he means. The play then has a contemporary feel to it.

Many of the actors play multiple parts in many and various wigs and costumes. Samantha Spiro as the Ghost of Christmas Present and various other roles is particularly lively, sprightly and formidable.

Patrick Barlow wrote The 39 Steps as a sendup of the dark, mysterious film. He has done the same with A Christmas Carol. It’s directed with wicked flair by Phelim McDermott, a director who knows a thing or two about turning things on their heads. He directed Shockheaded Peter and Theatre of Blood for example. With >A Christmas Carol he has done the same thing. He has taken a show that has had many incarnations, that people think they know, and then fiddled with their expectations.

Comment. By presenting A Christmas Carol as a musical hall entertainment, there is a quality of whimsy about it. But when Scrooge comes face to face with his painful past; the death of his mother; his beloved sister; his inability to accept his nephew because his sister died giving birth to him; being forgotten over the holidays at school. It’s heartbreaking no matter how funnily it’s presented. Then when he is redeemed and changes, I think the show turns from being a sendup of sorts, to a show about a man who is forgiven and accepted. Dickens will outlive us all. And A Christmas Carol will prevail too.

Sonia Friedman Productions present

First performance
: November 30, 2015
Closes: January 30, 2016
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours

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