Posts Tagged ‘Christmas Carol’

Review – Neil Bartlett’s A Christmas Carol – Metal Rabbit at Old Red Lion

December 15, 2014

Christmas is here! That means mince pies and pantos and paper crowns and presents! Lots and lots of presents! Spending money and getting things and STUFF and eating and drinking too much and fun!

And that’s it, right?

Or … maybe there’s a little something more to it.

The little bit more is posited in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” which I try to see at least once a year. Its message, which is, in part, that the poor will (probably) always be among us and that caring for them is actually a duty of being human, is one I find extremely relevant these days. As libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and other isms look out upon the poor and label them “scroungers” who deserve what they get, I can’t help but think this Victorian tale sounds as if it could have been written by a modern day Swift who wants to show us the ugliness underlying our opinions.
Christmas Carol

It’s hard not to see how these many adaptations have glammed it up and emphasized the ghosts and the noise and fun of this story: but, thankfully, in this production at the Old Red Lion we get a chance to see the story stripped down like an old piece of furniture: the knots and burls, the joins and the texture all brilliantly visible without layers of paint between us and it. We have six actors: a Scrooge (Alexander McMorran, weep that he does not sing more) and five others, and no Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come at all. The actors move fluidly from role to role, with only Scrooge staying the same.

The effect, in this small theater, is quite intense. We are forced to use our imagination, to see snow in tossed paper, coins in clinked chain, and generosity in handfuls of tinsel. It is a very effective Empty Space aesthetic, which comes home to me most painfully in two scenes. The first is the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, which is a puffed up paper bag which the five of them tear to bits; their Christmas pudding is revealed, with great to-do, to be an even tinier paper bag, perhaps the size of a fist. It’s all so pathetic, the desperate scrabblings of a family who almost never get to have meat, and who won’t have more than a teaspoon of pudding each: I couldn’t help but think of that damned Baroness who said just a few days ago that poor people don’t eat well because they don’t know how to cook. Even Scrooge is horrified by just how little the Cratchits have to go around, but at least he’s not blaming their want on poor culinary skills.

Later we come to the scene where Scrooge sees a dead man stripped of his burial garments, to his horror. Normally this is done with Scrooge on the side with the Future Ghost watching a fake corpse in a bed, but in a “do less with more” moment we have Scrooge himself lying on the floor, his trousers and jacket being pulled off of him (he hasn’t been in his nightgown as is usual) by human scavengers who praise each other and vilify the man they are denuding. Scrooge’s paralysis, fright, and horror during this scene are palpable; and to have him end the moment wearing just his long johns physically shows us where Scrooge has come to mentally. His walls of protection, his emblems of status, have been taken from him, and now he is but a man, who must consider who he is in light of how he behaves toward other people. He has discovered not just that he is unloved and unwanted, but that he is a source of misery for others; and, indeed, that by his actions he could become far more than just a person who has put yet a bit more money in the bank. He now wants to create something of real value, something that holds meaning even when you stand alone and nearly naked; and to do this, he must act to care for his fellow man. He has been transformed; and in the 70 tight minutes of this show, it is difficult to imagine how more junk or people could have expressed this better. I can only hope that Baroness Jenkin herself might realize that instead of blaming the poor for their struggles, she should try taking direct action to alleviate poverty: to be a little less Marie Antoinette and a little more “God bless us every one.”

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on Saturday, December 13th, 2014. It continues through January 3rd.)

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Review – A Christmas Carol – Charing Cross Theater

December 20, 2013

Who’d expect there to be two London debuts of Christmas Carol musicals in one year? But so there is, the first a remounting of the popular American one by Menken and Ahrens, the second a home-grown effort making its first showing in the Big Smoke after two regional tours. Last night was the opening of the second, a British-created A Christmas Carol (book by Stephen Leask and Joshua Sills, lyrics Jessica Rufey, Music Patrick Rufey), featuring fourteen songs and a big cast (two rotating casts of five children each!). This is what I went to see at the Charing Cross Theater, and I have to say I was seeing it as a bit of a competition: how would it hold up?

This show sticks pretty closely to Dickens’ story, skipping a few minor details while hitting the majors – Scrooge’s rejection of his first love in favor of money, the Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchits, et cetera. It’s all tied together with music, from the opening crowd scene “Christmas Eve” to “A Life of Regret” and “The Man I Meant to Be.” After seeing the Tabard show’s visibly thin budget, it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into this musical, with multiple costume changes, live accompaniment, and several dance scenes.

But many of the details grate in a way I find less forgiving in a bigger show. The costume designer has made a general sort of Victorian looking clothes, which use fabrics and colors unknown to the period and cuts that range from Gone with the Wind to Mommy Dearest. This seems unbearably sloppy given the wealth of data about clothing of the period. The dance scenes also seem to have been done by someone who’s never done historical research – gentlefolk waltzing in the early 1800s? Can can dancing at a company party? Some attempts at research would have really helped add an air of authenticity. There’s also scrimping on special effects, from the missing Marley knocker (come on, even the no budget Christmas Carol did this) to the Ghost of Christmas present flying moment (which consisted of the actors standing in front of the stage extending their arms, then lights out while they ran to the back of the stage). Much better was the Ghost of Christmas future, a simple black curtain that faces were pressed out of – both spooky and a nice transition to Scrooge waking up in his bedroom, wrapped in the curtain. And the Christmas lights that illuminated the theater when the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared were simply magical.

Unfortunately, this magic did not extend to the music. The songs were melodic but entirely unmemorable, and the decision to have extended child solos in several of the songs was an affront to the ears. And somehow, Tiny Tim’s character was left nearly completely hollow by the script, which never really explained (or showed) why Scrooge was so enamored of him. A Christmas Carol has been to Weston Super Mare, Dunstable, and Bridlington, where it probably easily earned accolades, but in London, it’s in the right place in the Charing Cross Theater. There have been many excellent productions of this story, but this is not one of them, and while it isn’t terrible, it’s not really one to get enthusiastic about.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013. It runs through January 4th and was originally reviewed in The Public Reviews.)

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Review – Dublin Carol – Trafalgar Studios

December 9, 2011

Every year I have three Christmas theater traditions: I try to see one Nutcracker, one Panto (or two, or three), and one “Christmas Carol.” This year I did a combo “Christmas Carol” outing, with one trip to hear a reading of Dicken’s story “The Chimes” in the Garden Court Chambers (satisfying the Dickens part) and one trip to see a show with the word “Carol” in it that I thought might have more than a passing nod to the more famous body of plays borrowing on the Dickensian trope. And, well, one act play with seventy minutes running time, what’s not to like?

As it turns out, about the only thing this show has in common with Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” is that it takes place on Christmas eve. John (Gary Lydon) isn’t rich and certainly doesn’t lord it over the poor; his sin is that of being long a drunk and willing to point the finger of blame for his wreck of a life to anyone but himself. It’s a skill he’s eager to teach Mark (Rory Keenan), his assistant-du-jour at the funeral home John manages. In grand style, John jaws his way through most of the first forty minutes of the play, going through mortality and the benefits of dating stewardesses to the point where my brain came to a complete stop.

In the second scene, John’s daughter Mary (Pauline Hutton) comes by, apparently on the same day, to tell him her mother is in the hospital dying of cancer. John then stands there and makes a bunch of excuses for pretty much his entire life while Mary nails him to the wall for being a shoddy excuse for a father. It all seemed rather a bit too familiar for me, although I was distracted by listening to the characters speak the words; it sounded like good Irish accents that had not had much practice – not surprising given that this was first preview (and the only night I could come as most performances were already sold out).

Then it was the final scene, in which John starts out passed out at his desk and then gives Mark a stunning bit of bad advice about blaming women for making you feel bad when you hurt their feelings, essentially saying they’re probably trying to manipulate you and at best if they were decent they would keep their feelings to themselves. Mark, shockingly, actually decides this is bad advice, forcing John to dump a bunch of his own emotional garbage on Mark in order to save face (by earning pity). In retrospect: wow, John is just a total piece of work.

And the play, well, it’s a little bit of misery at Christmas time, the kind that makes you want to drink until you can’t remember the names of your children much less how to make your way home from the bar. I don’t feel I saw any character evolution in this, and it made me yearn, I tell you, yearn for the bigger focus of Dicken’s Carol. Since when did Christmas become the holiday for self pity? At the end of Dicken’s story, Scrooge changed, but I saw no sign of this happening for John; in fact, I expected that shortly after he went to the hospital (if he made it at all), he was about to slide back down the hole of alcoholism. It was pretty bleak. That said, it wasn’t all that long – but neither was it too particularly interesting. I’d call it a good show to perform as a high school character practice piece, but there are a million things much better available right now and in general, I’d say you should go see one of those.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on December 8, 2011. Performances continue through December 31st and are nearly entirely sold out.)

Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse

December 13, 2009

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.)