Director: Thomas Bellerby
Writer: Alexander Wright (based on the story by Charles Dickens)
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
As the audience assemble in the ever re-configured Great Northern Playhouse, they are greeted with the austere exterior of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s residence, black door knocker pending transformation. A host arrives and reveals himself as the spirit of Jacob Marley and so the haunting begins, immediately involving the audience in creating the wails from the afterlife that spook Scrooge in through the front door. A large space is revealed, half feasting table, half Victorian parlour, and the audience is invited to take a seat on the spectral plane and join in with Marley in teaching the lesson of his after-life time.
The familiar story of A Christmas Carol is, as the publicity for the show rightly claims, ‘lovingly bastardised’. We do travel to Christmas Past, Present and Future, but with Marley as the sole spirit guide to the journey, the respective spectral embodiments of each age having been excised and their functions conflated. As this is a two man show, this works neatly enough. The audience are imaginatively involved in the story, ringing the bells around the space that alert Scrooge of a ghostly presence inside his house, extinguishing candles as the vision of Christmas Future’s funereal bleakness is conjured, playing small parts at key moments, and joining in with singing and party games with gusto.
The audience participation in the story-telling in perhaps a little uneven, bunched mostly at the opening of the show, but it is all successfully conceived and executed, a testament to Bellerby’s direction. The bolt-on party games and contemporary Christmas songs that open the second half are the least successful element and like a too long Christmas meal with relatives become stale and start to drag somewhat. Coming as they do after the pause for dinner, they also create too long a break from the story-telling and too many anachronistic moments, so the mood of a Victorian ghost story struggles to re-establish itself.
Al Barclay provides a prickly, energetic, shouty Scrooge and although he somewhat lacks the decades of heart-broken bitterness that is the crux of the part, this lighter version sits well with this adaptation, involving as it does the in-character hosting of a Christmas dinner for the entire audience. (The food, by the way, is surprisingly good.) John Holt-Roberts is a charming and musical Marley, again softening the traditional rôle to enable the varied functions of his expanded character to be achieved. If Holt-Roberts had been freed to play a variety of parts throughout, including a distinct separate host, then some slightly strained monologues could have been avoided and a harsher Marley would’ve been an option. Wright’s structuring of the narrative also makes it hard to understand where Scrooge is in his redemptive journey. If a young Scrooge had hosted the audience’s dinner as the Fezziwig’s ball, this perhaps could’ve avoided some of the blurring.
As a theatrical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, this show has its limitations, but as a warm-hearted yuletide feast it is a great evening of festive fun, and should be a very welcome part of anyone’s Christmas.
Runs until Friday 19th December 2014| Photo James Drury