Chris Monks’ new version of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, moves Scrooge’s childhood to Ryedale, a thoroughly acceptable change given the novelist’s North Yorkshire connections and the fact that young Ebenezer’s unhappy schooldays chime with Dickens’ fierce condemnation of Yorkshire schools elsewhere. That apart, this is a faithful adaptation, both in the narrative line and in the moral message.
The key decision for the adaptor/director is the extent to which Dickens’ sentimentality should be foregrounded and Chris Monks comes up with a near-perfect solution. The Christmas spirit is there in the carols, the merry dances and the sweet little children, but the characters belong very much to the real world. Kraig Thornber’s Scrooge, younger than usual, is a brisk man of business, not a grotesque, his transformation thoroughly convincing, and Keith Woodason makes of Bob Cratchit a bright, good-hearted husband, not a poor down-trodden slave or an unlikely saint. Even Tiny Tim (Evie Jenkinson in the performance I saw) is presented without undue resource to handkerchiefs. The result is the message becomes something more relevant than “Be nice to folks at Christmas!”: goodness is presented as a major force to overcome meanness, malice and misanthropy.
A cast of six adults, mostly multi-tasking, is supported by one of two teams of eight youngsters (the Marley and Cratchit teams!) who are given far more to do than look cute, sing a lot and dance a bit. The production is not short of the “Aaah!” factor, but the young actors (who cover a wide age range) all take several parts with skill and confidence, even playing young adults successfully, as in the scene at Fred’s party.
The adult actors include Liam Gerrard and Maeve Larkin as a nicely convincing young couple (nephew Fred and wife) who also supply the violin accompaniment to the Christmas songs. Janine Birkett’s Mrs. Cratchit has the same directness as her husband and Claude Close shares the fun of a number of contrasting parts, notably spreading joy to the world as Mr. Fezziwig.
Sue Condie’s basic design is unremarkable, a bumpy empty snowscape. However, as Scrooge and Cratchit’s desks are wheeled in, with every inch covered in a clutter of papers, her eye for detail becomes apparent. Her costumes are an effective mix of realism and fantasy. Paul Stear’s lighting and video designs produce a marvellous effect of clocks and hourglasses as time goes backwards for the Ghost of Christmas Past and puppet maker Lee Threadgold has his moment with the looming presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Even the younger members of the cast successfully negotiate Dickens’ narration and dialogue, much of which remains, but, if I have any reservations about an intelligently conceived, amusing and moving production, it’s about the age level it’s aimed at. For all that, the primary school parties seemed rapt at the performance I attended.