Review – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths

Review – A Christmas Carol, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 6th December 2017

A Christmas CarolIn the absence of Mrs Chrisparkle, who was called away on urgent business in the States, I was graciously accompanied by Lady Lichfield to see the RSC’s new production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by that fantastic writer David Edgar (Yes! Nicholas Nickleby! Destiny! Albie Sachs! Author of so many superb contributions to our stages over the past forty years or more). There are few books that have lent themselves so effectively to adaptations over the years as A Christmas Carol – from Alastair Sim to the Muppets, and not forgetting Tommy Steele’s regular reappearances in Scrooge The Musical.

Phil DavisAnd here’s another one to add to the canon. David Edgar has taken the familiar redemption story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, Marley and the Ghosts and framed it inside the creative mind of Charles Dickens. Many of the more exhilarating works of art are about the creative process that brings about that very same work of art. Consider the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is about the film crew making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or Elton John’s Your Song, which is about how he came to write Your Song. Now we get the chance to observe how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

The CompanyHis original notion, according to Edgar, was to create a hard-hitting tract on the poor and the workhouses. But as his editor and friend John Forster, who accompanies Dickens on this creation-fest, points out, it’s Christmas and no one wants to read a gloomy but worthy pamphlet. Forster makes Dickens think again. Brainstorming names, Scratch becomes Scrooge and a legend is born. Dickens then himself appears in many of the scenes as he tries to imagine himself in his own story, encouraging his characters to reveal themselves as truthfully as possible. It’s a fresh and enjoyable approach to the story and helps to place it in the context of early Victorian poverty.

Phil Davis and Gerard CareyNevertheless, I was still surprised by how very sentimental I found it. Of course, it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing, or not. Some people like to wallow in it; personally, I find the story rather mawkish. It’s not often that one looks to Agatha Christie for a critical assessment of someone else’s work, but I can’t help but agree with her character Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, when talking of the snowdrift, says “takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim. So bogus.” When the adult (not so Tiny) Tim emerges at the end, alive and well due to the generosity of Scrooge, Lady Lichfield confessed to releasing a few sobs. Sentimental? I rest my case.

Nicholas BishopIt looks as authentic and ravishing as you would expect from an RSC production, but with your imagination having to do a lot of the work to fill in the blanks – which I always think is more rewarding anyway. A couple of movable doorframes suggest a maze of corridors at Scrooge’s offices or at the Cratchits’ grim digs. A few lush furnishings create a comfortable environment at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s place. Palely lit windows in the sky are all that’s needed to conjure up a densely populated living city; and with a mere gesture Dickens can cause the snow to fall – because, after all, everything we see is in his imagination.

John HodgkinsonPhil Davis is every bit as good as you would imagine as Scrooge; viciously arrogant and miserable when at work on Christmas Eve, his mouth curling with disgust at what he interprets as the weak laziness of others, who expect to be given a day off work and for him to bear the financial loss. His unease turns to genuine fear as he encounters the three (female) Christmas ghosts; and there’s a lovely, funny scene where, invisible, he observes the games they play at nephew Fred’s and how he is hurt by the things they say about him – all this, while the Ghost of Christmas Present (a surprisingly hilarious performance by Brigid Zengeni) is tucking into their candied fruits. And I did like the not-so subtle dig at Boris Johnson.

Vivien ParryScrooge’s transformation to a paragon of charity is very nicely done and contributes to another excellent scene with Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, where, at the end of his tether, Cratchit finally plucks up the courage to tell Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him….and then realises how the miser has changed his tune – very funny. Among the rest of the cast, Nicholas Bishop is an amusing Dickens, John Hodgkinson a hearty Fezziwig, Vivien Parry a scary ghost and a comic aunt (Is it a Bison?) and Emma Pallant a singularly unamused Mrs Cratchit. But the whole cast work together splendidly as an ensemble.

Brigid ZengeniThere are a few musical and dance interludes that I found a little self-indulgent; one early in the show seems to go on for ages, long beyond what I felt the story required or could sustain at the time. And there was something about the show overall that for me didn’t quite soar. It’s sentimental, but in a very shallow way; I didn’t get a pounding of emotion at anyone’s plight. But there’s no doubt that it’s a classy show with an excellent central performance and an unusual approach which gives it an extra kick. If you’re a fan of the story, you’ll definitely want to see this blend of the traditional with a quirky modern take. It’s in repertoire at the RSC until February 4th.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – A Christmas Carol, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th December 2012

A Christmas CarolHello again, gentle reader, and Happy New Year! Lovely to see you again. I am sorry about the lack of posts here for the past few weeks, but it’s been a very busy time. Mrs Chrisparkle had need of a long break from work, so we have been away both before and after Christmas. I can tell you about those travels in due course. We have also seen a few shows and with your indulgence I will be delighted to tell you about them.

Sam GrahamOf course, the downside of having left it a bit late to review these shows is that some of them have already closed. So even though I might recommend that you see them – in some cases, you can’t. Sorry about that. A Christmas Carol, the festive play production at the Royal Theatre in Northampton, is a case in point. Its season finished on 6th January, and you’ll know, if you saw it, that it was a terrific little production.

Greg HaisteThe story is an old favourite. You simply cannot experience Christmas without some reference to it in film or on stage at some point over the holidays. The only other time we have seen the story performed on stage was in Tommy Steele’s Scrooge about six or seven years ago, when we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the Palladium one New Year’s Eve. It was probably a mistake – the whole show was a mystery to her. About 30 minutes into the second half she loudly announced “Has Tommy Steele come on yet?” – the aforesaid Mr Steele having been “on” since the show started – so God knows what she thought had been happening on stage up till then. At the end Mr Steele invited us all to cross hands with our neighbours and sing Auld Lang Syne. When the polite little girl to our right tried to link hands, the Dowager glared at her and shoved her out of the way as she though she was trying to nick her handbag. Ah, happy Christmas memories.

Kate GrahamBut I digress as usual. Whilst there is some incidental music involved, this isn’t really a musical version. It is, however, an imaginative and charming telling of the old story, with a lively and talented cast, directed by Gary Sefton with his usual flair. The set is reminiscent of other Sefton specials at the Royal – it especially brought back to mind “Travels With My Aunt” – with its multi-layered construction using suitcases, steps, ledges, boxes, windows and furniture, all apparently positioned higgledy-piggledy but which cunningly conceal many entrances and exits, acting areas and seats. A great job by designer Michael Taylor – I particularly liked how Scrooge managed to perch on a chair high above nephew Fred’s Christmas party to witness the fun he had previously chosen to scorn. The costumes are excellent, and I particularly enjoyed Scrooge’s festive outfit in the final scene – definitely worth scouring the length and breadth of H&M trying to find that one. I’m no expert on the story, but Lady Duncansby, who was also in attendance and has spent a lifetime devoted to the tale, advised that the adaptation by Neil Duffield was very true to Dickens’ original.

Eric Kofi AbrefaAt the heart of any version of Christmas Carol is of course, old Ebenezer himself. The name is a testament to Dickens’ brilliant use of language – could ever a name sound so miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge? It’s an excellent performance by Sam Graham. Detestably miserable when you first meet him, he relishes his mean and self-obsessed condemnation of wider society that he insists must fend for itself no matter how poor or downtrodden the people may be. The two ladies who call at Scrooge and Marley’s collecting for charity looked genuinely disgusted at his withering refusal to donate. Unfortunately the sound he emits to represent “Bah Humbug!” reminded me of the eponymous jeering laugh of TV’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, but no matter. As he goes through the process of meeting the three Christmas ghosts, you quickly see the prospect of his redemption. In fact, I’ve never seen a performance of Christmas Carol/Scrooge – on stage or on film – where I have been so absolutely convinced that Scrooge genuinely means it when his character is reformed at the end. This really is the supreme depiction that it’s never too late to replace a bad life with a good one.

David OsmondThe visions presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past include a wonderful short scene where Ebenezer as a boy is found amongst his fairy tales and the story of Aladdin comes to life before our eyes; and it’s the first time you see any sense of joy in Scrooge. I thought that was a beautiful and lovingly performed sequence. You also see the moment when young Ebenezer turns away from his love – or rather she rejects him as he appears to have gone cold on her – but instead of chasing after her to win her back, he resigns himself to a life of counting pennies, much to the exasperated dismay of the onlooking old Scrooge. The storytelling and presentation of these scenes is beautifully clear and compelling.

Emerald O'HanrahanThere’s not a weak link in the cast; we all loved Greg Haiste’s Bob Cratchit, with his quill pen dancing in the windy breeze, and especially as the family man bringing some Christmas Cheer to his wife and kids, including the poignantly tragic Tiny Tim. He was also extremely funny en travesti as Mrs Fezziwig and as the wannabe flirtatious Topper at Fred’s party. Kate Graham gave a subtly rewarding performance as Mrs Cratchit, fighting her natural desire to despise Scrooge but setting a good example by toasting him nevertheless; and she was dignified but determined as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Eric Kofi Abrefa was Decency Itself in his role as Fred, and David Osmond was all too believable as the young Ebenezer putting joy behind him. There are also three teams of children playing Cratchit’s kids and the street urchins – we saw Team A, I believe, and they were superb. Their doleful expressions, as presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future when Tiny Tim is alas no more, brought genuine tears to Mrs C’s eyes.

IMG_6299The arrival of apparently “real snow” at the end, descending from heaven into the stalls, was a touching way to envelop the audience and cast together in the same theatrical magic and an absolutely packed Royal Theatre audience left extremely happy and heart-warmed at the end. It’s a really rewarding and life-affirming production, and we all loved it. “God bless us every one.” (Sniff).