23 January 2010

The Snow Queen - English National Ballet @The Coliseum - Wednesday 13th January 2010


The Snow Queen is overseeing the creation of a magic mirror carved from ice. As the mirror is unveiled, she is horrified to find that instead of seeing herself reflected in eternal winter, the mirror reveals Kay and Gerda, in love, in a summer landscape. Furious, she shatters the mirror and begins to plan the return of eternal Winter.

Kay and Gerda have grown up together. They dance happily and greet Grandmother who helps them tend the white and red roses they have planted together. After their friends arrive, they are interrupted by a group of gypsies begging. The friends shun them, but Gerda feels sorry for their leader, a young girl like herself. The gypsies are driven away but Gerda gives the Gypsy Girl her shawl. As the friends depart, snow begins to fall. Winter has arrived more severely than ever. Kay is trying to light a fire, when suddenly a mysterious light begins to fill the room. The Snow Queen appearing at the window, enters. Kay is mesmerised by her beauty and is frozen to the spot. The Snow Queen commands slivers of ice to pierce his heart and his eye, Kay collapses to the floor, the room disappears and the Snow Queen vanishes.The villagers gather and enjoy the snow.. Kay arrives, but a change has come over him. He disrupts the festivities. Gerda tries to shake Kay out of the black mood that has mysteriously overtaken him but he destroys her precious roses, strikes her to the ground and runs away. The Snow Queen appears out of the blackness. At first Kay is afraid, but he is gradually overwhelmed by her beauty. She beckons him to her and kisses him. Kay feels a sudden rush of intense pain, but moments later he can no longer feel the cold. The Snow Queen enfolds Kay and lifts him up into the frozen night sky.

Eternal winter has descended on the village. Kay has disappeared without trace and Gerda is heartbroken. Unable to rest, she and Grandmother desperately search for him. Exhausted, she collapses in the snow and drifts into a deep sleep. Gerda dreams of the Roses, who tell her that Kay is not dead as they cannot see him in the earth. Meanwhile, Kay has been transported to the Snow Queen’s Palace.. Knowing the task to be impossible, she tells Kay that in order to gain his freedom, he must place all the shattered pieces of ice in their rightful place in her mirror.Gerda is still lying in the snow. Suddenly, she is surrounded by a group of gypsies. She is very frightened but the Gypsy Girl emerges from the group and protects her., Gerda begs the Gypsy girl to free her and help her in her search for Kay. Making sure that the other gypsies, having drunk their fill, are all asleep, the Gypsy girl secretly gives Gerda the gypsies’ Reindeer.

Arriving at the Snow Queen’s Palace, Gerda sees Kay sitting sad and alone, almost completely frozen beneath the mirror. He has completed the puzzle except for the final two missing pieces. As Gerda tries to approach Kay, she is stopped by the Snow Queen, who, aided by her minions, blocks her way. Gerda, with courage inspired by her love, runs to Kay, embraces him and starts to sob. Her hot tears melt Kay’s heart and the first sliver of broken mirror falls from his chest. Kay suddenly recognises her , and remembering his love for her, also begins to weep, causing the second sliver to fall from his eye. Seizing the two slivers, Gerda triumphantly places them into the mirror. The Snow Queen’s power is destroyed and her Palace begins to melt around them.

Creative Team:
Choreographer and Director: Michael Corder
Design: Mark Bailey
Lighting: Paul Pyant

The Snow Queen – Sarah McIlroy
Kay – Yat-Sen Chang
Gerda – Crystal Costa
Grandmother – Jane Haworth
Gipsy Girl – Begoria Cao
Roses – Esteban Berlanga and James Forbat

Reindeer – Esteban Berlanga

Well, if you had told me that this was the same company that performed that travesty of a Nutcracker that I saw recently, I wouldn’t have believed you. Whether the entire company had simply upped its game because they had much better choreography to dance and therefore more to do, or whether all the decent dancers had been taking leave over the Christmas period and were now back raring to go I don’t know, but everyone was on their very best form, really attacking the steps and getting the best out of the music. It really did look like a completely different company. Even the members of the corps who spent most of The Nutcracker simply going through the motions and therefore catching my eye simply because they were so dreadful were really going for it, and ENB looked like a proper ballet company again.

Michael Corder really did pull out all the stops with the choreography for this production. However, I think its fair to say that he pulled out a few more stops than was really necessary, because the whole evening simply went on far too long. I know that most ballet plots are gossamer-thin and that a certain amount of padding is therefore completely justifiable, but I did feel that this production overstayed its welcome by about half an hour. By Act III I had really rather had enough and found myself glancing at my watch. Not that I wasn’t enjoying what I was watching, but it seemed endless, with plenty that could be legitimately cut down or even cut completely. Whether Corder felt that all the music was so good that he simply had to use it all, whether he was justifying his salary as a choreographer or whether he just felt he wanted to take the phrase “full length ballet” to its ultimate definition I don’t know, but it began to irritate me in the end. In Act I, Kay and Gerda had two or three very long pas de deux, the Snow Queen’s courtiers had seemingly numberless dances and the Gipsy Camp in Act III looked rather like the fairy tales had got muddled up somehow and they were all wearing The Red Shoes, being forced to dance until they fell dead on the spot.

Anyway, Sarah McIlroy was fantabulosa as the title character, dancing with precision and stalking the stage like an icicle on heat (a somewhat mixed metaphor, but appropriate in this case). Her costume (apparently covered in an unheard of number of crystals, so many that the entire production had to be sponsored by Swarovski) can’t have been the easiest thing to dance in, particularly since it was topped off by the kind of crown that made the Romanovs look like second-hand car dealers) was amazing, but both Him Indoors and I thought that the amazing cloak of dark blue velvet covered with enormous glittery snowflakes could have been shown off to better advantage if the designer had “done a Rothbart” on it (Rothbart is a character in Swan Lake who spends a great deal of time sweeping about the stage in an enormous cloak. To show this off, the cloak is generally made very large and has poles stitched into the bottom of each front hem. The dancer can then grab these and flourish the cloak, which extends out beyond his hands by about 2 feet each side). Yat-Sen Chung and Crystal Costa (who sounds like a cup of glittery coffee) were spot on as Kay and Gerda, partnering each other as if they had been born to it. Costa was appropriately winsome and little-girly, but remained a little bit too saccharine towards the end for my taste. There was a missed opportunity to have a stage filled with dancing roses (in the end there were only two) and I’m sure that someone could have come up with a costume that was a little more inventive than merely copying Nijinsky’s from Spectre de la Rose. And I would just like to point out with my geek hat firmly pulled down over my ears that the antlers that the Reindeer was wearing were nothing like those of a reindeer but those of a moose (full marks to Esteban Berlanga for taking on possibly the most embarrassing choreography ever devised in this role – think a gay Mr. Tumnus and you’re almost there).

All in all, an evening which re-confirmed my belief that ENB can dance - unfortunately my bottom had gone to sleep completely by the end of it.

What the critics thought:



http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/dance/article6986918.ece (I include this completely on the strength of a wonderful comment right near the end about gypsies in ballet!


Some nice excerpts from the production - although I wish ENB would drop all the "advertising comments" and just let the production speak for itself.

06 January 2010

Twelfth Night - Duke of York's Theatre - Wednesday 6th January 2010


Viola has been shipwrecked in a violent storm off the coast of Illyria; in the process she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. She disguises herself as a boy and assumes the name Cesario for protection. Thus disguised, Viola becomes a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. It seems that Orsino is having little luck courting Olivia, who is in mourning for the death of her brother. As Orsino's proxy, Viola is sent to Olivia with love letters. Viola refuses to budge until she is let in to see Olivia; Olivia, intrigued by the impudent young "boy," contrives to get "Cesario" to return by sending her steward, Malvolio, after her with one of Olivia's rings. Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen for her Cesario rather than Duke Orsino—further complicated by the fact that Viola has had stirrings herself for Orsino.

Sebastian (Viola's twin, presumed dead) comes ashore in Illyria thinking that Viola has drowned in the shipwreck. A man named Antonio rescued him from the surf, and continues to aid him—at some risk to himself, as Antonio fought against the Duke at one time. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, Sir Toby Belch (her uncle) has hoodwinked a foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek into supporting him by convincing him that he could be a suitor to Olivia. There is a running feud between Malvolio and Belch; with the help of Maria, Olivia's maid, and Feste, a clown, Belch plots to make a buffoon of the steward. Maria writes a love letter to Malvolio that will make him think Olivia has fallen for him. Malvolio falls entirely for the sport, which eventually leads to his confinement as a madman.

All the while, Belch is egging Sir Andrew into a duel with Viola's "Cesario" character as she departs from Olivia; Olivia is now entirely smitten with Cesario, even though Viola continues to press Orsino's cause. As Viola and Sir Andrew prepare for a duel that neither one wants, Antonio happens upon the scene. Believing Viola to be Sebastian, he intervenes and is arrested. Viola, of course, does not recognize Antonio. Later, Belch and Sir Andrew encounter Sebastian, who doesn't back down from Aguecheek when challenged and resoundingly beats him. Olivia intervenes in the matter, and—mistaking Sebastian for Viola/Cesario—presses her suit for him. A bemused Sebastian agrees to marry her. Antonio is brought before the Duke for questioning, and Viola relates the events of the duel. Antonio tells everyone how he
dragged "this man" from the surf, saving his life. Then Olivia enters, searching for her new husband—which she thinks is Viola (as Cesario).

Adding to this confusion, Belch and Aguecheek enter claiming that Viola/Cesario has
violently assaulted them. In the midst of Viola's denials, Sebastian appears. The brother and sister recognize one another and are reunited; Sebastian helps to clear the confusion as to who fought and married who. At the end, Orsino and Viola pledge their love, Olivia and Sebastian will remain satisfactorily wed, and Olivia rebukes Belch and Maria for their abuse of Malvolio, who vows his revenge upon the whole lot. Belch agrees to wed Maria to make up for getting her in trouble, and all—except the disgruntled Malvolio—will apparently live happily ever after.

Creative team
DIRECTOR Gregory Doran
DESIGNER Robert Jones
LIGHTING Tim Mitchell
MUSIC Paul Englishby
SOUND Martin Slavin

JAMES FLEET - Sir Andrew Aguecheek


What country, friends, is this?
Well, by the looks of things, Ottoman Turkey in about 1820 (although there seems to be rather a lot of drinking going on among the natives for a muslim country). There’s a lovely crumbly brick wall describing more or less a quarter-circle at the rear of the stage, with a tiny barred window at the top, just off centre, a door with a classical pediment, and some broken-off columns rearing up either side of the stage. The boards of the floor rise up at the back of the stage and curl forward like wooden waves, which is a nice touch but somehow not quite enough. They get waves back-projected on them occasionally just in case you don’t realise they are supposed to be waves. There are turkish carpets and big tasseled cushions, hookah pipes and sometimes ornate brass lanterns hanging from the ceiling, tall and spindly tables with samovars on, and an incredibly anachronistic rotary clothes line at one point (I think the carousing scene takes place on the roof of Olivia’s house). Its all very pretty, easy on the eye and able to be sufficiently non-specific to be any time, any place, anywhere - as long as its Illyria (turn left at Samarkand and keep straight on) in 1820. The kind of place Lord Byron and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu liked to hang out in. If it were on a paint chart it would be called “Moorish Magnolia”. Its nice; I like it, although its all a little pristine for such a sandy country (and one with so many inviting beaches to be shipwrecked on) and the box tree looks a bit out of place (Olivia must spend a fortune on irrigation). “The Orchard” consisted of three topiary cones of graduated height. Almond trees would have been better, think I.

T’is a fashion she detests
Well, I don’t know why, because they were all very pretty, very colourful and all perfectly in period. If I have a couple of quibbles, one was with keeping Olivia in her mourning clothes practically until the end of the production – I’ve seen many productions where as she begins to recognise that her mourning is actually an affectation, Olivia goes into half-mourning and then relatively normal clothes. I also have to point out (and I know some people are going to roll their eyes at this point at me picking nits) that the concept of the white wedding dress for women is a Victorian one; up until the 1850’s, women simply wore their best day dress to get married in. Putting Olivia in a white and gold evening dress to get married in wasn’t right. But it was very pretty, I will give them that. Neither am I sure why the costume designer found it necessary to put Malvolio in a soutaine which he had to hitch up and reveal his (rather grubby) modern boxer shorts when showing off his cross-gartering.

If music be the food of love, play on
Well, the music in Illryia is lovely – all bongos and zithers and stuff. Feste (the one person in the entire play who really needs to be a great singer), did sound as if he was one of the rejects for the Illryian heat of the Eurovision Song Contest as his vocal range was extremely limited and he really couldn’t handle a lot of the quite elaborate runs of notes, generally over-compensating for his lack of technique and going horribly, awfully flat.

Get you all three into the box tree
Once again, Mr. Doran shows his directoral skills with this production, although the pacing seemed dreadfully slow in the first half. Luckily it picked up, although nobody seemed to be able to put the brake on and it seemed to get faster and faster towards the end. However, the effect of the initial slowness was to concentrate attention on the poetry, and it was refreshing to be able to hear every word and therefore extract the full meaning from the dialogue for once. I thought that Viola’s first scene could have been handled more dramatically – after all, she has just been shipwrecked. She didn’t even look very wet. And there was nothing to explain how she had ended up with a set of her brother’s clothes; in at least one other production I’ve seen, she finds that her brother’s trunk has been rescued from the wreck (or has been thrown up on the shore) and she finds that she has nothing else to where. Something which I’ve never seen before and which worked extremely well was the short scene in the market in which Viola and Sebastian come very close to finding each other and this was a nice dramatic touch. I also liked the “non-happy ending” for several of the characters – while Feste is murdering his final song, Sir Andrew, Malvolio, Maria and Sir Toby cross the stage going home dejectedly, pondering their future and having their first marital falling out respectively. Not everything ends happily for everyone in Illyria, which is just how it would be in real life.

O when mine eyes did see Olivia first, methought she purged the air of pestilence
And so she did – Ms Gilbreath was a wonderful Olivia, certainly one of the very best I have ever seen. She has a strange, smoky voice (almost as if Olivia has been puffing away secretly on Turkish cigarettes) quite masculine and reminiscent of Joan Greenwood which takes a little time to get used to, but she modulates her dialogue beautifully, with all the nuances nicely pointed and taken quite slowly; I think this is probably one of the first times when I actually sat and listened to Shakespearean dialogue with a sense of just how wonderfully poetic it is. A fine actress is capable of bringing out nuances which often go unnoticed in dialogue and Olivia’s “Oh, how wonderful!” at the very end of the play when she is faced with both Viola and Sebastian was a masterpiece of lustful innuendo in five syllables as she contemplates the prospect of having two identical “men” in her bed.

…the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look upon him, love him
And so to Mr. Wilson. Not nearly as funny as expected or wished for – the “letter scene” was probably the most disappointing I have ever seen this played. Wilson plays Malvolio straight down the line with little feeling for the subtleties of the role – in fact, he plays Malvolio as Richard Wilson. There were a few flashes of his alter ego Victor Meldrew and it would have been fun to have seen more of this – I know the RSC is all about the sanctity of the text but a quick “I don’t believe it!” during the letter scene would probably have brought the entire house down. I do have sympathy for Wilson though – like Sinbad and the Old Man of the Sea, he always be carrying this monster on his back and will probably never be rid of him. The trouble is that Wilson and Meldrew are more or less the same person. His Malvolio, however, is at the same time, both and neither. There’s no towering rage in the drinking scene and no puffed up peacock in the letter scene, and consequently no real sense of sympathy from the audience during his incarceration. Consequently, in this production Malvolio feels very much like a minor character, and is thrown into darkness not because of his failings but because the vast majority of the remainder of the cast are shining so brightly that he becomes overshadowed. His final line is delivered from offstage, which renders the character even more impotent – instead of witnessing an admittedly ill-used man explode with rage or deliver withering malice, we are left to our own imaginations as to how Malvolio is reacting. Having said that “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” is rather like “A handbag?” from The Importance of Being Earnest in that its probably the most famous like in the entire play and everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what the Director is going to do with it. In this case, Doran fudges it completely.

This is a visually charming production, finely nuanced and very well acted – although its lack of a strong Malvolio makes it feel a little hollow at times. There is also a certain lack of hilarity about the proceedings – rather than being uproariously funny, it feels only gently whimsical and slightly wistful at times.

Amazingly, this is the first time Wilson has ever played a Shakespearean role on stage - you can tell from this clip just how embarrassed Wilson is by the fawning interviewers.

What the critics thought:





01 January 2010

The Nutcracker - English National Ballet @ The Coliseum - Thursday 31st December 2009


It is Christmas Eve. The Stahlbaums are hosting their annual Christmas party, welcoming the arrival of their family and friends The children, Clara and Fritz, are dancing and playing as they welcome their friends too.The party grows festive with music and dance as godfather Drosselmeyer arrives. He is a skilled clock and toy maker and always full of surprises. Drosselmeyer draws everyone's attention as he presents two life-size dolls. They are the delight of the party, each taking a turn to dance.The children begin to open gifts when Drosselmeyer presents his to Clara and Fritz. Although his gift to Fritz is quite nice, he gives Clara a beautiful Nutcracker that becomes the hit of the party. Fritz becomes jealous, grabs the nutcracker from Clara and promptly breaks it. Clara is heartbroken looking on as Drosselmeyer quickly repairs the Nutcracker with a handkerchief he magically draws from the air.
As the evening grows late, the guests depart and the Stahlbaum family retires for the evening. Clara, worried about her beloved Nutcracker, sneaks back to the tree to check on him, falling asleep with him in her arms.

As the clock strikes midnight strange things begin to happen. Clara begins shrinking as her beautiful Christmas tree grows high above her. The toys around the tree come to life while the room fills with an army of mice, lead by the fierce Mouse King. As the Nutcracker awakens, he leads his army of toy soldiers into battle with the mice. The Mouse King corners the Nutcracker and battles him one-on-one. The Nutcracker seems to be no match for the Mouse King.The Nutcracker and his army can go on no longer and are captured by the mice and their King. Clara makes a final daring charge throwing her slipper at the Mouse King, hitting him square on the head. The Mouse King drops to the floor and the mice run away, carrying off their leader's lifeless body.The Nutcracker turns into a Prince and takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow, an enchanted forest wonderland where they are welcomed by dancing snowflakes.

The Prince escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Prince tells her about their daring battle with the army of mice and she rewards them with a celebration of dances.Clara awakens from her dream and finds herself by her Christmas tree with her beloved Nutcracker.

Creative team:
Music: Tchaikovsky
Choreography: Christopher Hampton
Concept and Design: Gerald Scarfe
Lighting: John Rayment

Drosselmeyer: Juan Rodrigues
Clara: Kei Akahoshi
Sugar Plum Fairy: Daria Klimentova
Prince: Vadim Muntagirov
Mouse King: Daniel Jones

Well, what a mess this was. ENB have been dragging out this conceptual nightmare since 2002 and its high time that it was consigned to the dustbin marked “Bad ideas” and taken away with the post-Christmas rubbish collection. I’m no fan of Gerald Scarfe by any count anyway (though I would go to the ends of the earth for his lovely wife, Jane Asher, whom I met several times when I worked in a posh bookshop in the King’s Road in Chelsea eons ago, and who is as sweet and charming as her cake designs). Scarfe’s designs for this ballet are in the same category as Zandra Rhodes’ designs for opera – badly conceived and with no real feeling for or understanding of the art form. The concept is poor to begin with – the action of the ballet is updated to a vaguely modern period and so loses all the charm and prettiness of “Christmas past”. Instead, we get garish colours, cartoony costumes and visual untidiness, all of which detract from the story and the action, just so that Mr. Scarfe’s ego can be stroked. Many of the characters wear costumes and wigs that look like those worn by people in the Dr. Seuss books. The army of mice wear tight red pyjamas blotched with black that make them resemble mini Friesian cows with bad sunburn, and gas masks with huge Mickey Mouse ears, which must be hell to breathe in, let alone see through. Act II costumes are almost universally dreary, bringing little colour to a stage starved of glamour and sparkle. .

That Scarfe has no real understanding of ballet is amply illustrated in an in-programme interview with the choreographer, in which it slips out that some of the scenery had to be jettisoned before the first performances simply because it takes up too much of the stage and encroaches onto the space needed for large numbers of dancers. There are also a couple of rather bad taste interpolations; for instance, Nutcracker is traditionally the ballet that parents take their sprogs to – can you imagine trying to explain to a 7 year old why the character of “Granpa’s Girlfriend” is called Ms. V. Aggra? The Nutcracker doll itself isn’t a traditional doll with a workable jaw but cracks nuts between its thighs. Ho ho….. nutcracker! Geddit? Drosselmeyer is no cranky uncle figure or slightly threatening magician but a weird hybrid of Shakin Stevens and Adam Ant. Scarfe’s concept ideas also run out completely by Act II, in which Clara and her story are completely sidelined and she becomes a mere spectator, forced to watch the goings-on from a wonky pavilion created from huge chocolate boxes. Neither does his imagination run to providing a fully-rounded ending to the story, which simply fizzles out with several important issues unaddressed and unresolved.

Choreography was bland and unimaginative or simply failed to take account of the music (half of the music during which the Christmas Tree grows to an enormous size is doled out to Clara and Drosselmeyer in a flabby, pointless pas de deux which serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever). That Hampson is completely up his own arse is neatly illustrated by a couple of his comments in the in-programme interview mentioned above. When asked whether his choreography is meant to be deliberately provocative, Hampson states “It pushes the art form to look beyond its classical boundaries, and for people who don’t enjoy it, it reconfirms their love of traditional productions”. To the question “Do you get fan mail?”, he replies “I do….and I have had hate mail too (which I equally enjoy) asking “What have you done to the traditional Nutcracker? Sending them the address of Covent Garden [home of the Royal Ballet, notes for its extremely traditional production of Nutcracker] normally does it!” Now that’s just pomposity and sheer arrogance.

Added to this is the fact that ENB simply does not have the calibre of dancers necessary to pull off an enormous London production. Several of the principals seemed unable to cope with the demands of the (poor) choreography or maybe had simply given up trying – Vadim Muntagirov may well be able to hop around the stage elegantly but has absolutely no ability to partner, leaving Klimentova’s Sugar Plum Fairy dangerously unsupported and exposed and even throwing her completely off balance during the final bars of the grand pas de deux in Act II, resulting in a horribly scrappy fish dive which nearly didn’t come off (this is what it should look like, and didn't) . There were at least two members of the corps de ballet who were merely going through the motions, and not very well at that either, putting in minimum effort and frankly barely good enough for panto in Wimbledon, let alone a large ballet production in central London. The company look completely lost on the enormous Coliseum stage, which you would assume could be partially solved with an “all hands on deck” policy – yet in Act II, at least eight dancers who took small named parts in Act I don’t even appear, leaving vast tracts of the stage completely empty and undressed. If you have an enormous cast on which to draw, this policy can be easily defended, but not if you’re operating on a shoestring.

Probably the final insult is the lack of choral accompaniment to the closing scene of Act I (The Kingdom of Snow – always my favourite scene) when a chorus of offstage voices – traditionally children’s – accompany the music. Here, the chorus is omitted completely - me and Him Indoors exchanged shocked looks wondering whether something had gone hugely wrong backstage. However, as the silence continued, it transpired that no singing was to be had and that what should be a huge, rousing finale to Act I was about as festive and Christmassy as a half-inch puddle of slush left in the bottom of a carton of vanilla ice-cream. No singing?! No singing?! In an opera house, for pete’s sake? When the children appearing at the Christmas party at the start of Act I are from the Tring School of Performing Arts? Can no child from Tring sing??? I very nearly stood up in my seat and sang myself, I was so disappointed. Well, hear this, ENB. Get yourself some singers fast (at least before you trot this crap out again next year) or you’ll be singing a different tune – accompanied by the ringing of tills in the foyer as unhappy customers ask for their money back. Me? I vow that I'm off to Birmingham in December 2010 to see how The Nutcracker SHOULD be done

What the critics said:





I tried for ages to find a clip of this production on YouTube but no joy - so here is "The Nutcracker" courtesy of Birmingham Royal Ballet.

A Christmas Carol - Southwark Playhouse - Wednesday 30th December 2009


Ebenezer Scrooge sits in his counting-house on a frigid Christmas Eve. His clerk, Bob Cratchitt, shivers in the anteroom because Scrooge refuses to spend money on coal for the fire. Scrooge's nephew, Fred, pays his uncle a visit and invites him to his annual Christmas party. Two portly gentlemen also drop by and ask Scrooge for a contribution to their charity. Scrooge reacts to the visitors with bitterness and venom, spitting out an angry "Bah! Humbug!" in response to his nephew's "Merry Christmas!"

Later that evening, after returning to his dark, cold home, Scrooge receives a chilling visitation from the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Marley, looking haggard and pallid, relates his unfortunate story. As punishment for his greedy and self-serving life his spirit has been condemned to wander the Earth weighted down with heavy chains. Marley hopes to save Scrooge from sharing the same fate and informs Scrooge that three spirits will visit him during the night. After the wraith disappears, Scrooge collapses into a deep sleep.

One ‘o clock strikes, heralding the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange childlike phantom.. The spirit escorts Scrooge on a journey into the past to previous Christmases. Invisible to those he watches, Scrooge revisits his childhood school days, his apprenticeship with a jolly merchant named Fezziwig, and his engagement to Belle, a woman who leaves Scrooge because his lust for money eclipses his ability to love another. Scrooge, deeply moved, sheds tears of regret before the phantom returns him to his bed.

One ‘o clock strikes again, to Scrooge’s confusion. The Ghost of Christmas Present, a majestic giant clad in a green fur robe, takes Scrooge through London to unveil Christmas as it will happen that year. Scrooge watches the large, bustling Cratchitt family prepare a miniature feast in its meager home. He discovers Bob Cratchitt's crippled son, Tiny Tim, a courageous boy whose kindness and humility warms Scrooge's heart. The spectre then takes Scrooge to his nephew's to witness the Christmas party. Scrooge finds the jovial gathering delightful and pleads with the spirit to stay until the very end of the festivities. As the day passes, the spirit ages, becoming noticeably older. Toward the end of the day, he shows Scrooge two starved children, Ignorance and Want, living under his coat. For the third time, the clock strikes one. The Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes instantly as Scrooge notices
a dark, hooded figure coming toward him.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads Scrooge to the cold, cheerless home of the Cratchitt family, who are mourning the death of their beloved Tiny Tim. Through a sequence of mysterious scenes relating to an unnamed man's recent death. Scrooge sees businessmen discussing the dead man's riches, some vagabonds trading his personal effects for cash, and a poor couple expressing relief at the death of their unforgiving creditor. Scrooge, anxious to learn the lesson of his latest visitor, begs to know the name of the dead man. After pleading with the ghost, Scrooge finds himself in a churchyard, the spirit pointing to a grave. Scrooge looks at the headstone and is shocked to read his own name. He desperately implores the spirit to alter his fate, promising to renounce his insensitive, avaricious ways and to honour Christmas with all his heart. The ghost disappears suddenly finds himself safely tucked in his bed.

Daylight streams through the window and Scrooge finds that it is Christmas morning. Sending a small child to buy an enormous turkey for the Cratchitt family, he visits his clerk and announces an enormous pay rise for him. Leaving Tiny Tim and his brothers and sisters surrounded by Christmas gifts, Scrooge runs off to his
nephew’s Christmas party, a changed man forever.

Creative Team:
Ellie Jones – Director
Barbara Fuchs – Designer
Neill Brinkworth – Lighting
Helen Beasley and Conchita Perez – Costumes

David Fielder – Scrooge
Steve Hansell – Bob Cratchitt
Sarah Paul – Mrs. Cratchitt
Louise Collins – Christmas Past
Trevor Georges – Christmas Present
Thomas Padden – Jacob Marley
Tiny Tim – Festus Shodipo

Programme: Free!

Well, this was….unusual, to say the least, and not quite what I was expecting. I always think that productions of A Christmas Carol which run on into the New Year feel a bit…well, redundant really, probably because the story is so time-specific. A bit like a partially deflated balloon left over after a party. Not that I am comparing this production with a partially deflated balloon left over after a party. Or perhaps I am. The whole thing seemed just a little flabby around the edges, even though the concept is good and the production ditto. It may be that the “community cast” (for which read “local people getting involved just for the fun of doing it”) caused the performance to sag slightly as they could have done with being a little more disciplined about various things or better drilled by the director. It could be that the whole concept of a promenade production is problematic in itself – the logistics involved in shepherding a large group of people around a series of dank and dingy vaults underneath railway arches without losing the narrative flow made the production feel a bit episodic; there is always the possibility that people will dawdle between scenes, drift off, get in the way of things, fall over props or scenery, break off into private conversations or not be able to see properly. It could be that the interval felt slightly unnatural in that it broke the spell after a particularly poignant scene (personally, I wouldn’t have objected at all if there had been no interval as the performance seemed to be progressing fairly quickly and very smoothly towards its concluding scenes). Or it could be that A Christmas Carol is one of those works which has just been done to death in all sorts of formats and I was just tired of the story. Or maybe I was just suffering from post-Christmas blues. I tried hard to like it and appreciate it for what it was but just had an enthusiasm fadeout after the first 45 minutes or so. There were scenes which I thought worked well and I enjoyed, and scenes that didn’t come across well enough. Perhaps I was essentially bothered by these inconsistencies.

The setting itself was extremely effective – a series of dank, dripping vaults with the rumble of the occasional train echoing through the gloom far overhead – which perfectly captured the feel of the slums of Victorian London (A thought just occurred to me while writing that last sentence; perhaps one of the inconsistencies which bothered me is that all the performance spaces felt dark and damp, meaning that the scenes set in warm, brightly lit interiors (the Fezziwig’s Christmas party, for instance) felt subtly out of joint. Perhaps better lighting and a bit more opulence for these scenes would have made them sparkle a bit more and heightened the divisions between scenes). The chill did, however, perfectly suit the clever opening scene in Scrooge’s office, the Cratchitt home and the graveyard. And nice efforts were made to involve the audience in the action itself – empty desks in the officer were occupied by audience members, about a dozen became extra family members at the Cratchitt family dinner and I particularly liked the way that we were all very deliberately spread around the large, foggy room for the final scene so that the cast had to move in and out of a host of hazy “onlooking ghosts”. Some scenes, however, just didn’t work. The “Ghost of Christmas Past” section seemed to go on an on forever and the dreary and wordy scene immediately before Scrooge is taken to visit his own grave could well have been done without. The Tiny Tim element of the plot seemed to be extremely underplayed, particularly during the “Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come” scenes – in fact, if your attention had wandered slightly at this point (for example, while trying to extricate your foot from a tangle of lighting cable) you might well have not realised that he had actually died. Unless I missed it, neither was there any clue to suggest that Tiny Tim was actually crippled. There were also problems caused by double casting – having Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchitt played by the same woman could well have caused confusion (particularly as the actress concerned had quite a powerful presence).

There were some excellent ideas – Scrooge’s casement window was a frame on wheels which could be moved about, giving the impression that Scrooge was rushing from window to window to look out into the night. Bare light bulbs were used instead of candles, and while these were strictly an anachronism, didn’t seem out of place at all. In fact, there was much humour to be had from Scrooge unscrewing the single bulb hanging from the ceiling of his office and taking it home with him to screw into the frame of his bed. In fact, his bed was a recurring motif, cropping up in all sorts of unexpected places To illustrate a long, rather dreary speech about other people celebrating Christmas, the windows of the Cratchitt home were used like those on an advent calendar, revealing brightly coloured stained-glass images of ships and lighthouses. One of the windows of the calendar became a door through which the audience was shepherded into the next room. The Ghost of Christmas Present didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere but was actually on stage for the entirety of the scene preceding his arrival – but so clever was his costume that you didn’t actually notice. The “prize winning turkey” purchased by Scrooge at the very end was, indeed, bigger than the boy who was sent to fetch it, causing much laughter. The sound effects, however, were disappointing and the entire production could have done with just that little bit more professional gloss to see it safely home for Christmas.

What the critics thought: