It’s enough to melt the stoniest heart. In the theatre entrance, the Salvation Army band plays for late night shoppers: outside Christmas carols, inside A Christmas Carol – and it’s hard to imagine a production more suited to celebrating the season.
Even before the start it’s clear that Charles Dickens is in safe hands, with a front-cloth of a Gustave Dore London skyline and a huge book spotlit on the forestage. The programme reveals that all eight adult actors also serve as storytellers: in fact chunks of Dickens’ narrative and description are spoken singly, in chorus, in fragments, even antiphonally, in a production that manages to be both traditional and innovatory.
The play itself begins with hand-bell ringers throughout the theatre while the stage is split between dancing children and Scrooge with the dead Marley. Not for the first time, the Playhouse’s joint artistic directors, Karen Louise Hebden (adaptation) and Stephen Edwards (direction), have conjured up a Christmas show that maintains a perfect balance between words, music and visual impact.
The well-known story of Scrooge who moves from “Bah! Humbug!” to good will to all men through the intervention of a series of monitory spirits is punctuated by carols, well sung, frequently a cappella, or played by an excellent wind trio in Kelvin Towse’s astute arrangements. In a production where nothing is done without a reason, the carols are not just ornamental: the Fezziwigs’ ball proceeds vigorously to “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”; “Silent Night” and the Coventry Carol are recurrent motifs for, respectively, the devotion of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s past humanity and present repentance.
Steven Richardson’s designs underpin the jollity with the reality of the London poor: Dore-style images lie behind all the trucked-in rooms and offices. As with the music, visual images are part of the narrative pattern, projections above the arches of the set providing a literal or metaphorical commentary on the action.
And what of the actors? Seven of them (and six admirably adept children) are selflessly versatile, no doubt keeping an army of dressers on their toes with quick-fire costume changes. Ben Roberts, as Scrooge, plays the misanthrope of the early scenes without melodrama, with a crusty exasperation that transfers to his own failings. His most expansive playing comes in an orgy of Pickwickian glee as the reformed character embraces the joys of Christmas.
In its intelligent mix of fun and sentiment, this Christmas Carol is both a highly entertaining evening and a genuine tear-jerker – just as Dickens would have wanted.
- Ron Simpson