The stage is bare, but for two stacks of three chairs, placed as bookends at the right and left wings. Over each stack is a thread of fairy lights. Our protagonist, and sole cast member, enters, clad in worn suit, overcoat and cravat. Placing his jacket on a hook at the side of the stage, he carefully unwinds the lights, and takes the chairs from their perch. Thus he begins his tale: a story as popular and resonant today as it was when penned by Britain’s greatest novelist in 1843.
Last year, in a re-imagining of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, director-designer Tom Cairns and actor Simon Callow stripped back the production of this festive classic to a single actor, who tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts by whom he is visited one Christmas Eve. Their version was so popular that it has been brought back to the Arts Theatre, Leicester Square for a second season. I have no doubt that in 2012, it will be as heartily received.
Callow, a master of Dickens and one of the most acclaimed actors of our generation, unfolds the story as though his audience were family, sitting warm and snug around a crackling fire. The set is minimal, with projections of Victorian London serving to indicate the place and time. To bring the story to life, Callow’s masterful narrative and multiple characterizations need only be accompanied by a few deftly placed sound effects: the odd prop; atmospheric lighting and occasional music.
It’s a story that we all know and love, but sometimes the central messages of Dickens’ Christmas parable are subsumed by lavish productions. But during his astounding one-act, 70 minute monologue, Callow reminds us that the themes: social injustice and poverty, want and ignorance, regret and love – are all as pertinent today as they were in Dickens’ time.
From his miserly Scrooge, to his ethereal visitors, to Tiny Tim – there is no part that Callow cannot conjure. However, there are no airs and graces about his performance. Callow clearly feels deeply passionate about Dickens’ message. As he writes in his programme foreword:
‘Dickens has made sure that, however vacuous Christmas may have become, at some point or another we all ask ourselves about those who have no place at the feast. Whether we do anything about it or not, is, of course, up to us.’
Thus Callow appears, not as a famous actor playing a part – more as a channel through which the Victorian author’s voice can be heard and explained. Despite this, his performance is virtuosic. For any aspiring actor watching in the audience, Callow’s ease with which he weaves his story is inspiring… not to mention – his ability to retain all those lines!
Due to its minimalist set and cast, Tom Cairns’ A Christmas Carol requires perhaps a little more imagination on the audience’s part than would a traditional version of the production with all the trimmings. But in allowing the audience member to focus on Dickens’ words, Cairns brings out the true essence of Christmas.
6-7 Great Newport Street
London, WC2H 7JB
Running Time: 1 hour 30 min