“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens is a timeless staple of the festive season, so it does feel a little premature to be watching Mark Gatiss’ adaptation on the day after Halloween, but actually it’s quite fitting – after all, this is “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story”.
Paul Will’s set design is a toppling, tower of filing cabinets which absolutely dwarfs the stage as we are introduced to Scrooge and Marley. Dickens enthusiasts will know that in the original story, readers never see the relationship between Scrooge and Marley while the latter is alive, so this adds a new and welcome dimension to the story as we see how the two work together as covetous old sinners. Peter Forbes gives us a growly and somewhat comic Marley but when the two misers mock Bob Cratchitt, there is a sinister edge to their laughing and joking. Marley gets much more stage time than in the original text, and his depiction of the chained Marley is chilling. In this scene, and so many other places in the production, costume supervisors (Caroline Llewellyn and Emilie Carter), lighting (Philip Gladwell) and sound (Ella Wahlstrom) work incredibly well together to create a supernatural intensity.
The digital elements (Nina Dunn) to this production are very effective. They can be overwhelming and take focus away from the performance on this stage, but in this case, the digital elements compliment and allow the audience to feel a part of the Victorian streets of London or a boys’ boarding school or a jolly old Christmas party. Sometimes it’s the little things that really make the difference and the chains projected across the front of the stages are very effective. It feels like the Director, Adam Penford, has gone to a lot of effort to ensure that the audience are fully immersed in this retelling, and I particularly love the puppet ghosts (designed by Matthew Forbes) that overwhelm the audience alongside Scrooge. In an effort to break the fourth wall, a narrator, in traditional Victorian storytelling garb, guides us through the story and it feels as if we are sitting by a fireside, roasting chestnuts. Geoffrey Beevers has a wonderful storytelling voice and his surprise at the end is touching and very well executed.
I am somewhat of a traditionalist and while I enjoy the breaking away from the original plot for the narrator’s reveal, I am not completely onboard with the endpoint of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The shrouded character brings everything I would want to see from this macabre figure, but I feel that the closure of this visitation with another surprise reveal, is a step too far away from what Dickens was trying to portray. The whole scene lacked the intended impact, and when everything else in the production is so tight, it feels like this scene could have more of an emotional impact, especially as this is a moment of true revelation for Scrooge.
Keith Allen is an excellent Scrooge. He has fantastic range, from a crazed old man threatening young carol singers with a ruler to inhuman in demanding that the poor die to “decrease the surplus population” to pensive during his visitations and then to a being “as merry as a schoolboy” as he realises the error of his ways. Allen really does bring everything to this role. His comic skills definitely bring a laugh to the audience. It’s a very physical and demanding role as Scrooge is barely off the stage, but the whole cast work incredibly hard in playing multiple roles, that they are all barely off the stage. In fact, Allen is the only actor not to play multiple roles. The ensemble is fantastic in keeping the energy up, depicting the busy streets of London and Christmas dinner through very well-orchestrated physical theatre (Georgina Lamb) through to the joy of the warmly (and contrastingly) lit parties, both Fezziwig’s and Fred’s, to the judging masses upon Scrooge’s death (I hope this isn’t a spoiler as the plot is so well known).
Edward Harrison gives a fantastic performance as he depicts the world-wearing but thoroughly good soul that is Bob Cratchitt, alongside multiple other roles. Harrison brings a warmth to the stage and he completely embodies whichever character he is playing. His body language, facial expressions and voice all change and are maintained dependent on the character he is playing, and given the swiftness of the changes, this is quite a feat. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have fallen a little bit in love with Bob Cratchitt tonight! I would have liked to see Harrison alongside a younger Tiny Tim as I feel that Dicken’s message about the punishment of innocent children in the polarised Victorian society is lost in the casting of an older Tim.
There is so much to enjoy about this production and Penford’s attention to the minutiae of detail cannot be overstated. The costume choices really bring the characters, and their choices, to life. The contrast of the red and green against black, and the gradual addition of black to Scrooge as he ages is a small but noticeable decision. The Christmas-red lighting, alongside the sumptuous throne, at the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Joe Shire) juxtaposes strongly with the fiery reds of hell upon his exit. The pace of this production is excellent and the timing is split-second when going from narrator-retelling to stage.
Upon leaving the auditorium, my heart is warmed. The Christmas carols are a fitting way to end this production, and the cast create some beautiful harmonies together. The snow-covered stage leaves the audience promising to hold Christmas in their hearts…just as Dickens wanted us to…
“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story” is playing at The Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 18 November.