First published in The Times, Monday December 10 2018
The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone” to a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” is as much a fixture of the season as advent calendars and fairy lights. Neil Bartlett’s stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s tale is a perennial favourite because it so perfectly captures the blend of melancholy and compassion in the story, without recourse to sentimentality.
While Bartlett’s script is the robust foundation for this year’s festive show at Northern Stage, the aesthetic of Mark Calvert’s staging of A Christmas Carol is altogether unfamiliar. You would expect no less from the creative team behind radical adaptations of James and the Giant Peach and Alice in Wonderland for the same theatre. Only, this time round, the source material is overwhelmed rather than invigorated by its shiny new wrapping.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The main innovation is Calvert’s decision to set the “real-time” story in the 1920s, with Scrooge (Nick Figgis) travelling back to a more recognisably Victorian past during the visitations. There are some impressive musical set pieces, tightly staged by Calvert, dynamically scored by the musical director Dr G Hannabiell Sanders and featuring the loose threads of the Jazz Age, courtesy of Rhys Jarman, the designer. Marley (Rachel Dawson) descends from the roof, swinging on a chain. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Will Pennington) performs a swing version of In the Bleak Midwinter while on stilts.
The production values are undeniably high, yet Calvert’s production, staged in the round, is notably lacking in warmth and intimacy, and there is little connection between the show’s style and the story. In amongst all the period polish and razzle-dazzle, only the scenes featuring the Cratchit family, led by Craig Fairbairn’s stoic Bob, capture something of the righteous indignation at Victorian inequality that drove Dickens to take up his pen.
Pic: Pamela Raith
In quieter moments, Figgis lets us see the ambivalent human beneath Scrooge’s callous veneer, but too often he is pushed to the margins by stagecraft that is diverting yet rarely stirring. This tale simply doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to seduce an audience. Bah humbug!