Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story
Feeling proper London after scrambling up the hill to Ally Pally for the first time (what a view! how windy! random dart fans!) I very much looked forward to Mark Gatiss and Nicolas Farrell scaring and thrilling me in equal measures.
There is some nice back story, like the theatre critics in the Muppet Show, we encounter Marley and Scrooge working together on ridiculously high stools, obsessed by money and counting boxes. Marley suddenly drops dead and Scrooge heartlessly walks by, snuffing out his partner’s candle to save waste. We see Scrooge behaving similarly heartlessly and snuffing out the spirit of Christmas and well, people’s spirits. But there is a reckoning coming as Scrooge seals himself in with his bed curtains.
With quite wonderful effects, the knocker on the door becomes a ghoulish face; Scrooge is haunted by Marley in immense chains and coin boxes with a host of other spirits who not only menace Scrooge and convince him quite surely that they are not an ill digested bit of beef or cheese, but even tumble out into the audience. Genuinely, deliciously scary. Neither do I know how they managed to get Jacob Marley’s feather quill writing by itself and then a ledger to fall off his desk, by itself…. Then the clock strikes (indeed numerous clocks pop up around the stage to bong and chime away), and then the Ghost of Christmas Past appears.
This ghost was a weakness in the production — ethereal certainly and like an overgrown child in a smock, but also very attention seeking and simpering, doing over stylised ballet moves. Too much! However, this ghost did play a mean violin at the Fezziwigs ball.
In this production, it was actually the supporting cast which got the attention — James Backway as Fred; Joe Shire as the booming, cornucopia Ghost of Christmas Present and the bewigged, merry, less profit orientated and more people person, (Scrooge’s initial employer), Mr Fezziwig; Edward Harrison as Bob Cratchit; all were quite wonderful and made these accessory characters quite substantial. Also Christopher Godwin channelled his inner Harry Enfield/Phil Daniels as the narrator; the death bed robbery scene for gain came quite to life in this production in its full horror.
But I think they over egged the ghost story and forgot the heart. For me, the Old Vic production of A Christmas Carol is the business — it has such heart; the characters are all much more widely invested in. While here, Scrooge’s rejection of his poor sweetheart for gain with Marley was well done and Marley had become more of a sneering Sneerforth character ala David Copperfield, it was hard to feel emotionally invested in most of the main characters. Or perhaps I just prefer the joy of parachuting puddings, turkeys and sprouts! Scrooge’s transformation and capering was well done; but the huge goose boought as a surprise for the Crachits had become a turkey — why?!!!! It was fun to see Scrooge struggle to continue to be mean and hard hearted to his employee after his dramatic redemption into the Spirit of Christmas, as he now sought to help rather than bear down on Bob Cratchit.
Perhaps it was the gimmicks — there were so many effects, moving scene changes, puppets, snowball props (one going rouge in another scene), that the heart was lost; the emotions were not quite there. The carol singing was exceptional but I’m not convinced about the lanterns. Though I cringed, the coming together of the cast at the Old Vic with hand bells and singing somehow gave heart.
In this production, both sound and lighting were used to substantial and impressive effect; I liked the playing of multiple parts by the cast; but I remained unconvinced by Belle’s jig (as I think she was in her dress and headdress), and by the dog puppet, which only had front legs?!!!! The Crachits were all over the place, but their celebration over a sparse meal was tenderly and ironically done — observed by a horrified and wondering Scrooge. The child actors were really excellent. Smoky old London is conjured up visually behind the towering boxes and cabinets of business.
Wonderfully creative, but it didn’t quite tug the heart strings and it really should — see the old Vic production or A Muppets Christmas Carol for this impact instead. However, there were some nice builds on the shock Dickens originally intended — it’s not meant to be cosy!