Around this time last year, my family and I went to see a staging of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (located at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church) on the outskirts of the theatre district. It was, admittedly, my first viewing of Dicken’s story onstage and as this past weekend would attest, it certainly would not be my last. Afterward, I wrote the following review, but for one reason or another, was never able to post it. As Christmas once again draws ever closer and this critic hones her review of TITAN Theatre Company/The Queens Theatre’s own rendition of the tale, I thought I would revisit this previously viewed production here on the blog. Enjoy. -J
If you grew up anywhere within the English-speaking world, chances are you were familiar with Charles Dickens’ seminal tale, A Christmas Carol. The original British novel (which has never been out of print since its publication in 1843) tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who hates all things Christmas yet changes his ways over the course of an evening. Over on West 46th Street at the Theatre at St. Clements, Patrick Barlow has put his own spin on the classic Dickensian tale in a re-imagined stage adaptation.
In this adaptation by Patrick Barlow, the story is told through four actors, all of whom narrate Scrooge’s journey through song, each one playing an instrument. Just as the “carol” motif is reflected in the novel through each chapter (which Dickens called “staves,” or song verses), so it is reflected here through the narration. The four actors, who also happen to portray all the supporting roles in the play, act as quasi-minstrels and help to move the story along. Aside from songs which tell the story, the actors also break into renditions of traditional Christmas songs, such as “Deck the Halls,” which they sing at both the show’s opening and closing. It is this device which perfectly suits the Victorian-era tale, bring the world of Dickensian London to life and immediately immersing us in it.
The actors make their way to the stage and begin regaling us with the tale of old Scrooge, played by Peter Bradbury. One by one, they each take their turn playing a character interacting with the old miser, as the others provide a musical underscore and look on at the scene unfolding. Here, we get a glimpse of what has long been the classic image of Scrooge: a man who turns away those most in need, including various townspeople seeking loans; a pair of nuns asking for donations; and his own office clerk, Bob Cratchit, who hesitantly ventures a request for a raise in his already meager salary. Scrooge even rejects an invitation by his nephew to join in the Christmas Eve festivities later that evening, with a swift and resound: Bah, humbug!
Without any remorse in his decisions to remain stingy and aloof, Scrooge retires to his bedchamber at home, only to be visited by the spirit of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who had died that very night seven years prior. The spooky apparition of Marley’s ghost announces the imminent arrival of the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The ever-proud Scrooge still remains disbelieving, until each ghost arrives and makes their case. As he journeys through space in time, Scrooge begins to realize that in pushing away the traumas he associates with Christmas, he has also pushed away love from his life – literally and metaphorically. In a whirl, cleverly provided by the revolving stage, each of the four actors play key characters from Scrooge’s life, even playing young versions of the man himself. We witness as his overbearingly rigid father chastises a very young Scrooge for his love of literature, namely children’s stories such as Ali Baba; later, we see Scrooge as a young man coming into his own and falling in love; later, as he finds success in his work, the love in his life soon fades, thus resulting in the man we see today.
The production made very innovative choices which breathed new life to what is certainly one of the most well-known stories in literature. Devices such as the minimal casting for a multitude of characters brought a well-paced rhythm to the show, which made for entertaining performances by actors Mark Light-Orr, Mark Price, Franca Vercelloni and Jessie Shelton. While the use of the revolving stage also served as an interesting alternative to scene changes, it also became quite tiring after a while. Another lamentable choice was the use of puppets and masks, where they could have cast a child (as in the cases of Tiny Tim and Young Ebenezer). In keeping with the play’s storybook feel (and perhaps due to its very young audience), the production utilized shadow imagery for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which felt out of place after seeing the previous ghosts portrayed by actors and would have worked better in the instance of Jacob Marley’s apparition. Despite these drawbacks, this Christmas Carol still manages to pluck some heartstrings and remains a constant reminder of the power and spirit of love during the holidays.