first night

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge (Mike Clarke) visits the Assembly Rooms for some Christmas cheer.
Everyone has a personal moment which marks the turning point between winter and Christmas: be it that early display of baubles and tinsel in Tesco, pushing open the first door of the advent calendar you know you’re really too old for or hearing the all too familiar carol singers trudge through Once in Royal David’s City in Market Square. For me Christmas only really materialises out of the ice and cold at the very last moment - usually about the weekend before the big day. But each year, surrounded by excited friends and various garlands and trees, I go looking for that spark that might push me into a frenzy of bright lights and present-buying. And so, often likened to Scrooge myself, I padded through the sludge into the Assembly Rooms hoping to find warmth and cheer awaiting me in NADSAT’s version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The story hardly needs any introduction: Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Huband) is a miserly, exploitative money-lender, whose treatment of his employees, clients and family alike have lent him the reputation of a cold, heartless man. The ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley (Edward Cherrie), appears on Christmas Eve and warns him to heed the visitations of the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future otherwise he too will be doomed to roam the earth for evermore.
The acting throughout was generally solid.  The transition of Huband’s Scrooge from grumpy scrawling at a desk to excitedly greeting people in the street was achieved with aplomb. Crumpled in a heap by his tombstone, there was a real sense of weight in his pleas to avoid his fate. It was only at this point that his curiously upright and closed physicality relaxed and became more expressive, reflecting the change wrought in Scrooge. Initially, however, I felt his fear at the impromptu séance taking place in his bedroom was somewhat muted. The role of Dickens, playing a narrator function, was delicately expressed through Callum Kenny’s facial dynamics: with furiously arching eyebrows reflecting his enthusiasm for the world he is creating. On the whole the rest of the cast coped fairly well with the Victorian syntax, although there were a few notable moments in which lines seemed not to be fully grasped or were lost. This was made up for by an admirable enthusiasm from all the cast to demonstrate their Christmas spirit, and everyone kept very much in character throughout, even in the dance and carol singing. With the majority of actors playing more than one part, they demonstrated mostly adequate delineation between roles, chiefly by varying vocal mannerisms. Performances which particularly deserve mention were the vocally-imposing Edward Cherrie as Marley who limped onto stage in chains with menacingly deliberate movements and the endearing Bob Cratchit, played by Jonathon Bowers, whose open smile and submissive posture gave him a readability that some of the other characters would have benefitted from. Christmas carols overlaid much of the action, providing a lacquer of mood to the proceedings and anchoring it firmly in the Christmas spirit.
John Muething’s stark set-design consists simply of a series of fly-operated windows, a door frame, a table, a bed and a few chairs. The effect is pleasing, giving the stage a cold, cheerless feel very much in keeping with the Victorian setting. In theory, combining these elements with a range of technical ‘special effects’ should produce some very special moments, unfortunately the reality was not quite so smooth. Scene changes were clumsy and sorely detracted from the action on stage. For instance, as The Ghost of Christmas Past (Jess Batterbury) made her ethereal entrance, several members of the chorus hurried alongside her to shift the table, rendering a potentially chilling moment relatively impotent. Likewise, the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Michael Booth) was hampered by the use of a trapdoor which, combined with troubles with his robe, made his sinister rise from the ground seem a little ungainly. The snow-machine, which only very briefly burst into life, added hardly anything to the proceedings besides a loud whirring which drowned out some of the much needed narration. Other moments, a well-placed projector for instance, did create dramatic tension but it was a shame that not all of these elements achieved their full potential – however, with more practice they can be very effective.
Costumes too were a mixed entity. While bright colours conjured up Christmas cheer and breathed life into the main characters, it remains to be seen how in keeping this was with the Victorian setting. At times it was difficult to tell, between the top hats and top man gloves, quite what era this particular Christmas Carol was meant to be from. However, the real star of the show in terms of technical aspects was Ophélie Lebrasseur’s lighting design. With various warm yellows and cold blues, the lights guided the audience’s attention spectacularly. Tableaus created by well-placed lights and the simple use of a followspot were the most visually-stimulating moments of the production and were well executed by Jenny Millar.
Leaving the theatre I was torn. It was an enjoyable experience; particularly towards the climax of the play as the story built pace and Director Michael Earnshaw deserves credit for that. Yet quite what I’d call what I just watched escaped me. At times the production seemed to take itself very seriously, while later facets were far more pantomime. Strangely, it was definitely the latter which I appreciated more; Dickens’ characters are so well known and the story so universal that it lends itself perfectly to caricature, perhaps with the exception of Scrooge himself. Had it gone one way or another, then perhaps the play would have worked better as a cohesive dramatic piece.  Regardless, the cast and crew of A Christmas Carol deserve a lot of praise for what they have created. And thanks to them, I’ve even uploaded a few Christmas carols of my own onto my iPod.
Mike Clarke

7 December 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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