Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Piers Torday
Director: Stephanie Street
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Charles Dickens’s original story of A Christmas Carol is, there’s no disguising it, a male story. Ebenezer interacts almost exclusively with men, from put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit to cheery nephew Fred. All the ghosts, from Jacob Marley to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, are male. The only women of note in the story who exist other than as wives of more notable characters are his sister Fan, who dies young and is often forgotten about, and his fiancée Belle, whose rejection of Ebenezer is presented as a fundamental reason why the character ends up quite so vile at the start of the novella.
Piers Torday’s rewritten seeks to redress the balance. In his staging it is Ebenezer, not Fan, who dies young: his sister grows up and marries Jacob Marley, taking over his money-lending business when her husband dies and reverting to her maiden name.
In the play’s opening moments, the concept of a female Scrooge may seem to be just another case of blithe gender-switching. But Torday and director Stephanie Street take care to look at what it would mean for a woman to be a successful, if despised, businesswoman in Victorian London in a manner that resonates 175 years later.
Sally Dexter’s Scrooge would be one of the character’s more complex portrayals even without the additional layers that Victorian misogyny thrust upon her. Dexter is wry, sarcastic and dismissive, her ice-heartedness precipitating cruelty rather than just being cruel for cruel’s sake.
There is also a core of anger within Dexter’s portrayal – anger at how, despite having an obvious aptitude for accountancy and a desire to use that in gainful employment, the only role for which she is considered suitable is that of wife; anger at how, upon marrying Marley, he acquires her assets and she loses all responsibilities.
The real skill Torday shows here is presenting this new version of Dickens’s story with the same sort of attention to humour that appeals to fans of the Victorian author’s writings. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ten-foot-tall puppet of the Ghost of Christmas Present, superbly designed by puppet maker Jo Lakin and expertly performed by Edward Harrison. A spirit forever living in the present, Harrison’s gargantuan Ghost is a delightful New Age concoction.
Despite all these changes, Torday’s script, for the most part, follows the familiar furrow plowed by Dickens – at least, until the normal point at which Scrooge is redeemed. The playwright wisely considers that the Ghost of Christmas Future’s visions may not be enough for Dexter’s Scrooge to repent. The resulting vision of 2019 is laden with jokes about modern living and commentaries about how it is still near-impossible to get the well-off to give two hoots about the homeless people they step over on the way to the nearest Starbucks. It is also the least effective scene of Torday’s whole work, and nor it is not immediately obvious how this vision prompts Scrooge’s change of heart when others did not.
But, as with all adaptations of A Christmas Carol, that redemption must come. In accordance with the themes of the show, Dexter’s now-delightful Scrooge is determined that her newfound social responsibility will bring about systemic change, especially for the lot of women. It is a bold, satisfying and empowering conclusion for a play which dares to suggest that the humanism of Dickens’s moral is nothing without the feminism that the writer, and his works, ignored.
Continues until 4 January 2020 | Image: Nobby Clark