Review: A Christmas Carol: At Home (Leeds Playhouse)
Dickens' classic is given a socially-distanced makeover
The production of Leeds Playhouse's A Christmas Carol: At Home emphasises the theatre's determination to keep operating during the coronavirus crisis. The Playhouse has already managed to sneak in some very successful shows at times when restrictions have lifted and as late as last week had live performances scheduled from December 19th. Unfortunately the hoped for drop into Tier 2 didn't happen, but the theatre has still managed to recreate the production for home viewing.
It is interesting that the credits acknowledge the original production of Deborah McAndrew's version of Dickens' Christmas classic, staged at Hull Truck in 2017 because, in many ways, the productions could not be more different. In the original the action was set firmly in the shipping community of Hull, giving Scrooge's money-making a convincing setting among the busy warehouses and gangways, the barrels and ropes, of the dockside. The Leeds production is impressionistic, with no specific suggestion of space.
However, the fact that the director (Amy Leach) and designer (Hayley Grindle) are the same as in 2017 is a tribute to their versatility. No doubt there are other factors, too, notably a wish to re-locate from Hull to Leeds, but the prime reason for the changes is, of course, the coronavirus outbreak, with the cast socially distanced. A further consideration is the desire to integrate British Sign Language into the performance. Rather than having a single interpreter many of the scenes incorporate BSL alongside speech and some make BSL the prime, even occasionally the only, means of communication.
The opening sees eight ghosts emerging by the appropriately named "ghost light" on stage, wearing what the programme terms "stripped back Victorian garb", mostly rather substantial undergarments. They wonder at the absence of people, but one of them tries different clothes, poses and ways of saying "Humbug!" – and becomes Scrooge!
Not surprisingly, the production is never as boisterous as the original, instead scoring heavily on the ghostly elements. Even before Marley's Ghost appears, the remaining actors torment Scrooge with tricks, removing his night-cap, his gruel and eventually his chair, and Marley and the three Christmas ghosts are all highly effective, notably Christmas Future who is no more than a menacing shadow.
There is no permanent set, cast members openly bringing on tables, chairs, etc., as needed and Chris Davey's lighting taking us from pinpricks in the surrounding gloom to festive streams. John Biddle's music has a couple of very jolly songs, for instance at Fezziwig's party, and underscores the mystery and terror of the visitations.
Jack Lord begins in conventionally mean and aggressive mode as Scrooge, but modulates convincingly through terror, enlightenment and joy. The moments when he joins with, then loses, the people in the visions are beautifully handled: the rather laboured miming of Uncle Ebenezer as an animal at Fred's party comes to life when the man himself joins in.
The remaining seven cast members double parts freely, two even manipulating a sweetly affecting Tiny Tim puppet. I am not sure how effective it is to have Bob Cratchit, a key character, communicate entirely in BSL. Stephen Collins is excellent and the pathos of his situation as Scrooge's victim is emphasised, but the totally silent scenes at the Cratchits (with the equally excellent Nadia Nadarajah) lack a certain sharpness.
A Christmas Carol: At Home is available until 7pm on 25 December