01 January 2010

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:





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