Exactly 170 years after it was first published by the thirty-two year-old Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol has become a standard and well-explored source for Yuletide theatrical treats. From copy cats to public readings (Dickens himself read from A Christmas Carol at Lancaster's Grand Theatre in 1861), from a multitude of film adaptations to The Muppets, can anyone really do anything new with this old festive favourite?
Oh yes you can! The newly-commissioned adaptation by Debbie Oates (Coronation Street and Brookside writer) offers a distinctly Lancaster take on the story. Director Joe Sumsion has marshalled a versatile cast of six who cover some thirty different roles with seamless fluidity, some stunning costume-changes and a range of accents and dialects.
Using The Round, The Dukes' smaller main-house venue with its intimacy and excellent views from the balcony, Sumsion also makes imaginative use of the skills of designer Alison Heffernan, composer/MD Carol Donaldson and lighting designer Brent Lees. I should also mention the breathtaking trickeries of illusionist Liam Gerrard, who plays Bob Cratchitt and other smaller parts.
After so many, often cheesy adaptations over the years, it is refreshing to see that the moral element of A Christmas Carol has not been sidelined or had too many spoonfuls of sugar here. Many see the social deprivation and poverty of early Victorian times as still prevalent in our society today, as we talk about fuel poverty and low wages and many are obliged to choose between eating or heating.
This new version, just like the original, never sermonises but is a source of fun, merriment and excitement to the packed audience, aged from five upwards. Quite a way upwards in many cases; we spoke to a couple of forty-something ladies who had come from an outlying village, and there was also a large presence of the younger end, including a recent school-leaver from near the Yorkshire border, and several families with their children.
All the people we spoke to during the interval and afterwards were unanimous in their praise: "best Christmas show for years", "I loved the music and the tricks", and "not just for kids" were among the varied comments. During the two-hour run (with interval) the audience, young and old alike, was spellbound by the finely-paced narrative. The palpable frisson and uproarious ovation said it all: The Dukes has another winner on its boards.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Dukes, Lancaster until 4 January.
- Michael Munn