Winner of the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 1994 (when it beat out Stomp to take the title), Patrick Stewart’s one-man version of Charles Dickens’
A Christmas Carol has returned to the West End this Christmas at the Albery Theatre after the premature closure of Duckstastic. It may be just a filler here, but it’s also surprisingly filling.
Continuing an oral tradition with this story that was begun by Dickens himself with his famous readings, Stewart first performed it as a filler for his own career. During
his seven-year run as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he came to wonder how, as he comments in a programme note, “I could keep my stage muscles in condition as I spent all my days in front of a film camera.”
The work he has devised (and perhaps ill-advisedly, also directs) himself is definitely a work-out in every sense. On a bare stage populated only by a lectern, a high desk and stool, a table and chair, Stewart brings some 40 characters to life and simultaneously is his own narrator to thread them together.
Seeing it the night after the RSC premiered its new 23-strong cast version of Dickens’ Great Expectations at Stratford-upon-Avon and that production's indulgent use of multiple onstage narrators, it was refreshing to see Dickens stripped back and unadorned here. Stewart's version is also an antidote to the pantomimic Christmas cheer of the unthreatening musical version, Scrooge, which has its own festive season this year at the London Palladium.
Instead, Stewart – a veteran of the RSC and dressed in an open-necked shirt and simple dark suit – has the instinctive gift of a storyteller to effortlessly draw you into this classic tale of a man journeying towards a kind of spiritual redemption. As he revisits his past, and glimpses his future, a moral fable – sentimental, for sure, but also full of genuine heart – unfolds.
A decent director, however, might have reigned in some of Stewart’s touches of over-acting. There is a textured simplicity to the staging – much assisted by the atmospheric lighting of Fred Allen – that is sometimes undermined by the cloying indulgence of an actor too keen to show off.
But to quote Ebenezer Scrooge himself: “Bah, humbug”. The strength of the storytelling eventually disarms even this criticism, and even this curmudgeonly critic was eventually smitten.