Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse

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Saturday afternoon, J and I headed to Southwark to see a fairly early performance – actually, a matinee, but I mean “early in the run” – of Southwark Playhouse‘s promenade version of “A Christmas Carol.” The ads warned of extreme cold as we walked through the tunnels under London bridge – but I had a far greater fear, of extreme naff as we were, say, paraded past a series of stale vignettes taken from the book, all marred by an excess of enthusiasm and lack of talent from the locally-recruited cast.

I am pleased to say on all accounts my fears were unwarranted. This was a very good show, both as an example of the promenade form and an incarnation of the classic tale, and was blessed by original staging and an utterly brilliant Scrooge. Before I finish my ramblings, let me encourage you to buy tickets now if you are a Christmas Carol fan, as it’s already selling out, the audience size (80) is about half the normal for this venue, and it’s well worth seeing. Word is going to get out fast and I’d hate to think that in the time it took you to read this you missed out on your chance to get tickets.

The event itself starts in the bar, where a nice Victorian three-piece band is making enough merry that I was sorry I hadn’t got there earlier. (We return to the bar during the interval; order your mulled wine in advance.) Various costumed people wander through the crowd wishing us all a happy Christmas; it actually made for a very nice transition into the show, and was a really enjoyable and atmospheric way to pass the time before it started.

We were then herded into the usual auditorium, which was set up with a series of writing desks, to which several audience members were sent to scratch out figures for Ebenezer Scrooge (David Fielder). He blew in and settled in the middle, while a few appropriately clad actors (and one Bob Cratchit, played by Steve Hansell) filled out the rest of the chairs. We audience recruits were actually quite involved with the scene, not just scraping our quills across the ledgers but also whispering (“Put some more coal in the fire!”) to each other, driving the story along. Meanwhile the real actors added vocal atmosphere, going “Tick! Tick! Tick!” as if they were the clock counting down the time to Christmas eve, and filling in other background noises in a unique way that helped us get into the “theater”/”something unusual is going to happen here” mindset.

(The sound design was notably good; I was entranced by the bird song that accompanied the arrival of The Ghost of Christmas Past and found the echoing voices of the various characters added a nice otherworldliness to the goings-on. The singing was also tuneful and appropriate.)

Scrooge’s office was transformed into his home, and then, well, we get Marley (Thomas Padden, heavily chained), and of course the Ghost of Christmas Past (a charming and joyous woman dressed in white, garlanded, and carrying a lightbulb – not quite a torch but, hey, fire regulations), who causes the room to open up and let us move, with the story, into the mysterious depths behind the theater. This was where (to start) Scrooge’s childhood was hidden – simply expressed by a boy in front of a blackboard. The set was sparse yet quite appropriate.

The rest of the show was, well, the story itself, with an admirable adherence to the text – yes, sure, there were some small changes, but Dickens doesn’t need a lot of ornamentation to work. And as the audience we get to dance with the Fezziwigs, eat with the Cratchitts, and … in a spooky scene … walk amongst the gravestones with Ebenezer and the creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. We weren’t watching scenes take place so much as experiencing them, and I found that it really worked. Much of the credit must be given to David Fielder, for I can hardly think of an actor that has more perfectly captured Scrooge’s journey. And we are there right beside him for much of it – he’s incapable of hiding from the audience at any point, as he is on stage for all of it except the interval. What a tour de force! I really bought his experience, from the arrogance of the beginning to the soft joy he felt seeing his happy past to his acceptance and desire to change at the end. While I’ve seen many actors play this role, Fielder seemed formed of the very ink of Dicken’s pen, and I expect all future versions I see will be held up against his standard. Also notable was Trevor Michael Georges as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which had every bit of the booming jollility I expect of this character – and handed out candy to the audience.

Athough there were a few hiccups with what I expect were less experienced actors (credited as the “community cast”), still, this is a show well worth seeing – and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as cold in the vaults as I would have expected it to be. Still, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t bother checking your coat … and do get out and see this show.

(This show is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 12th, 2009. The show runs through January 9th. It’s already sold out through the 28th, so I advise booking ASAP.)

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One Response to “Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse”

  1. Best London theater, 2009 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of mixed quality (the recent and continuing Christmas Carol was a treat to be sure) but never made me feel financially cheated. Generally worth going to […]

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