I went to see the Dundee Rep’s Christmas show on the coldest night of the winter so far, with snow on the ground and a crisp chill in the air. Maybe that helped a little to put me in a seasonal mood, but the real reason I enjoyed their take on A Christmas Carol so much is that it’s absolutely crammed full of festive atmosphere.
The show doesn’t have much scenery but it has buckets of spirit (in both senses of the word), and in a well-worn tale like this, that counts for so much more. As you arrive in the auditorium, the vibe is wonderfully relaxed. The cast are milling around in theatre-branded hoodies, chatting to the audience, while soft jazz carols play over the speakers. It makes the theatregoers feel welcomed into the experience, invited to participate, and that continues through the comically shambolic opening where they are encouraged to pick what story the actors will perform for them. Even though we all know where it’s going, it gives the feeling that the actors are colluding with the audience, taking them into their confidence, and so you enjoy the show with an extra nudge and wink that very few shows manage.
The script, written by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, feels very Scottish. London is never mentioned, and you get the impression this could be happening just up the road. That’s milked by several comic Scottish stereotypes, often operating in pairs, such as the larger-than-life Fezziwig ladies or the synchronised duo of charity collectors. Emily James’ set isn’t much more than a few crates and some musical instruments, but Andrew Panton’s direction uses it very effectively to build scenes and create atmosphere – Marley’s face in the door-knocker gives you an impression of what you’re in for – and when extra elements get lowered from the ceiling, the effective is particularly striking. They do the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come very cleverly, and the cast play up the metatheatricality with a knowing smile, involving the audience in the artifice very skilfully.
The actors form a terrific ensemble who give the impression they’ve been working together for decades. Ewan Donald plays a Scrooge whose heart melts slowly but steadily, and he avoids him going instantly from darkness into light. Laura Lovemore plays the Ghost of Christmas Past as a cross between Beyoncé and Mystic Meg, while Ann Louise Ross turns Marley into a grumpy granny. Benjamin Osugo makes a big impression as a large-hearted Fred, and Charlie West and Kirsty Findlay play the Cratchit parents while staying on just the right side of mawkishness.
The actors form the band, too, though the songs are passable rather than memorable. “The Melancholy Tango” is the best one, and it comes early, and it’s a very odd moment when Emily Cratchit breaks into a power ballad over her kitchen table. Furthermore, the show’s energy flags in the one place it needs most to deliver, namely in Scrooge’s moment of redemption after the departure of the final ghost, which is prolonged and a bit empty rather than cathartic.
Still, those are fleeting moments in a fast-paced two hours that fly by, and it helps that this is a quintessentially theatrical show. It’d be inconceivable to experience this production as a film or online, for example: being in the room with it feels essential. Its physicality and its sense of to-and-fro with the audience is always tremendously involving, and it made me think of how powerfully a Christmas show can serve as a gateway drug for kids to develop a lifelong love of theatre. I’d defy any family to resist the magic of this one.