Hello again, gentle reader, and Happy New Year! Lovely to see you again. I am sorry about the lack of posts here for the past few weeks, but it’s been a very busy time. Mrs Chrisparkle had need of a long break from work, so we have been away both before and after Christmas. I can tell you about those travels in due course. We have also seen a few shows and with your indulgence I will be delighted to tell you about them.
Of course, the downside of having left it a bit late to review these shows is that some of them have already closed. So even though I might recommend that you see them – in some cases, you can’t. Sorry about that. A Christmas Carol, the festive play production at the Royal Theatre in Northampton, is a case in point. Its season finished on 6th January, and you’ll know, if you saw it, that it was a terrific little production.
The story is an old favourite. You simply cannot experience Christmas without some reference to it in film or on stage at some point over the holidays. The only other time we have seen the story performed on stage was in Tommy Steele’s Scrooge about six or seven years ago, when we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the Palladium one New Year’s Eve. It was probably a mistake – the whole show was a mystery to her. About 30 minutes into the second half she loudly announced “Has Tommy Steele come on yet?” – the aforesaid Mr Steele having been “on” since the show started – so God knows what she thought had been happening on stage up till then. At the end Mr Steele invited us all to cross hands with our neighbours and sing Auld Lang Syne. When the polite little girl to our right tried to link hands, the Dowager glared at her and shoved her out of the way as she though she was trying to nick her handbag. Ah, happy Christmas memories.
But I digress as usual. Whilst there is some incidental music involved, this isn’t really a musical version. It is, however, an imaginative and charming telling of the old story, with a lively and talented cast, directed by Gary Sefton with his usual flair. The set is reminiscent of other Sefton specials at the Royal – it especially brought back to mind “Travels With My Aunt” – with its multi-layered construction using suitcases, steps, ledges, boxes, windows and furniture, all apparently positioned higgledy-piggledy but which cunningly conceal many entrances and exits, acting areas and seats. A great job by designer Michael Taylor – I particularly liked how Scrooge managed to perch on a chair high above nephew Fred’s Christmas party to witness the fun he had previously chosen to scorn. The costumes are excellent, and I particularly enjoyed Scrooge’s festive outfit in the final scene – definitely worth scouring the length and breadth of H&M trying to find that one. I’m no expert on the story, but Lady Duncansby, who was also in attendance and has spent a lifetime devoted to the tale, advised that the adaptation by Neil Duffield was very true to Dickens’ original.
At the heart of any version of Christmas Carol is of course, old Ebenezer himself. The name is a testament to Dickens’ brilliant use of language – could ever a name sound so miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge? It’s an excellent performance by Sam Graham. Detestably miserable when you first meet him, he relishes his mean and self-obsessed condemnation of wider society that he insists must fend for itself no matter how poor or downtrodden the people may be. The two ladies who call at Scrooge and Marley’s collecting for charity looked genuinely disgusted at his withering refusal to donate. Unfortunately the sound he emits to represent “Bah Humbug!” reminded me of the eponymous jeering laugh of TV’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, but no matter. As he goes through the process of meeting the three Christmas ghosts, you quickly see the prospect of his redemption. In fact, I’ve never seen a performance of Christmas Carol/Scrooge – on stage or on film – where I have been so absolutely convinced that Scrooge genuinely means it when his character is reformed at the end. This really is the supreme depiction that it’s never too late to replace a bad life with a good one.
The visions presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past include a wonderful short scene where Ebenezer as a boy is found amongst his fairy tales and the story of Aladdin comes to life before our eyes; and it’s the first time you see any sense of joy in Scrooge. I thought that was a beautiful and lovingly performed sequence. You also see the moment when young Ebenezer turns away from his love – or rather she rejects him as he appears to have gone cold on her – but instead of chasing after her to win her back, he resigns himself to a life of counting pennies, much to the exasperated dismay of the onlooking old Scrooge. The storytelling and presentation of these scenes is beautifully clear and compelling.
There’s not a weak link in the cast; we all loved Greg Haiste’s Bob Cratchit, with his quill pen dancing in the windy breeze, and especially as the family man bringing some Christmas Cheer to his wife and kids, including the poignantly tragic Tiny Tim. He was also extremely funny en travesti as Mrs Fezziwig and as the wannabe flirtatious Topper at Fred’s party. Kate Graham gave a subtly rewarding performance as Mrs Cratchit, fighting her natural desire to despise Scrooge but setting a good example by toasting him nevertheless; and she was dignified but determined as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Eric Kofi Abrefa was Decency Itself in his role as Fred, and David Osmond was all too believable as the young Ebenezer putting joy behind him. There are also three teams of children playing Cratchit’s kids and the street urchins – we saw Team A, I believe, and they were superb. Their doleful expressions, as presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future when Tiny Tim is alas no more, brought genuine tears to Mrs C’s eyes.
The arrival of apparently “real snow” at the end, descending from heaven into the stalls, was a touching way to envelop the audience and cast together in the same theatrical magic and an absolutely packed Royal Theatre audience left extremely happy and heart-warmed at the end. It’s a really rewarding and life-affirming production, and we all loved it. “God bless us every one.” (Sniff).