Cratchit review – an intriguing take on the Dickens classic that needs a little fine-tuning
John Dagleish stars in this festive production at the Park Theatre
A Christmas Carol is a classic festive staple. Countless schools recount the tale every year, the Old Vic accompany the story with mince pies, even the Muppets have done it. Most renditions stick closely to Dickens' original text, centering the miserly Scrooge. But what of his supposed jolly employee, Bob Cratchit? In Alexander Knott's two-hander (though largely a monologue), we get to hear Bob's side of the story as he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. A Christmas Carol gets its Wicked treatment, if you will.
In keeping with the original tale being a ghost story, this production is similarly dark in tone. We meet Cratchit (John Dagleish, who also played the role in a previous Old Vic production), a man angry with the class system, who enjoys many a "nip" of drink from a hip flask - "medicinal, it is!". He recounts his master's (cleverly never named, though we all know to whom he refers) actions, hunched over, full of venom, though tries to remain composed and thankful, thinking of what his wife always says. He does not want our pity. Dagleish is thoroughly engaging in the role, hooking the audience in with his easy charm before his despair crashes throughout the room.
Cratchit is visited by three ghosts who show him various futures, though at this point in the production the show loses focus. Unlike the original tale which focuses on Scrooge's own past, present and future, here we see some more general displays: Fred's workhouse, bloody war, a vibrant Soho in the 80s (featuring Tiny Tim as you will have never seen before) and a future which is clearly during the pandemic. It's unclear what connections these have to Cratchit, and his final lesson is rushed (though the play could also be shorter) and uncertain – is he supposed to be happy he is suffering, because his ancestors turn out sort of alright? It's a strange note to end on, while listening to a recorded rendition of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter' (sound design by Samuel Heron).
Emily Bestow's set design consists of jutting wooden beams at the back of the stage, stuck in snow. Broken floorboards line the stage and the only furniture are a desk and a doorframe on wheels, which is used to great effect when the ghosts come knocking.
There's a good amount of room to play on stage, which Dagleish and Freya Sharp, playing a variety of roles including Tiny Tim and Nephew Fred with infectious energy, fill up well. Sharp's characterisations could belong in a send-up while Dagleish is firmly in serious monologue mode, and the two styles are at times jarring.
This is certainly an interesting take on a beloved tale, with its commentary on poverty and the class system clearly apt for our times, and so is an excellent seasonal alternative. However, it could do with a little refinement and tightening. Where A Christmas Carol is remembered for its warm, joyous and redemptive ending, this one left me out in the cold.