It doesn’t get much more traditionally English than this – Charles Dickens’ ranting hymn to goodwill among men performed in the Thameside Rose Theatre which replicates the design of Philip Henslowe’s Elizabethan original.
With its seeming hectares of crowdfriendly space on the apron, and the close presence of what used to be called groundlings in the audience, the place could have been made for such populous shows. Well, it was, wasn’t it, thanks in part to its founding director Sir Peter Hall and the local authority backing of a serious 1,000 seat theatre among the shops and restaurants just over the road from Kingston police station.
It’s hard to register the fact that this immortal seasonal stalwart of the Dickensian canon was written somewhat against the grain of the author’s career, not long after the commercial disappointment of Martin Chuzzlewit. With its passionate appeal for all watching to instil Christmas virtues into their yearround conduct, it is of course as joyful in its conclusion as it is angry in its beginning, following as it does one of literature’s most noted conversions of miserliness to magnanimity.
And yet – how to tackle the problem of animating this virtual cliché of Ebenezer Scrooge’s enlightenment. Go at the thing full throttle is surely the answer, just as Dickens, still smarting from the effects of his own childhood penury and debtjailed father, did, completing the novella in a matter of weeks.
This Rose production, adapted and directed by Ciaran McConville, does just this, with some inspired handling of the deceptively difficult adult roles and some superb reworkings of staple carols by composer and musical director Eamonn O’Dwyer. Perhaps the greatest credit should go to the designer Timothy Bird, whose use of projection against a vast and flapping backdrop is a continuing drama in its own right. One moment its images seem as solid as city ramparts, only to be torn by rips and fissures and become as passing as clouds. As a visual echo to what Dickens is surely telling us about the frailty of fortune and the evanescence of earthly life, it is at times as much a map as a metaphor.
As one of the handful of actors not allocated a doubling or multiple stage life, Martin Ball gives us a handsomely rounded Scrooge. The eternal problem here is that you know the old skinflint is programmed to go to the good within the next two hours. So while he’s bad, he’s got to be utterly despicable without tipping over into, well, Dickensian caricature.
Ball brings this off to perfection, his darkness clinging to him just long and strong enough to make everyone wonder if he’s sickening for something after his lifechanging visions of Christmases gone, present and to come.
Fine performances too from Tomm Coles as Bob Cratchit and the versatile Anthony Hunt as too many characters to list here. Not to mention the children/young adults of the irrepressible Rose Youth Theatre, whose two teams alternate as the ensemble, with individuals springing out like flowers to portray the young incarnations of the story’s adults. They, in a sense, are what it is all about – or rather, what Dickens was all about in this work; the future, and its plain capacity to replace the bad old ways.
Over a decade ago, before the Rose was opened, I interviewed Peter Hall, formerly head of the National Theatre, about what he hoped for this new venue some fifteen miles up the river. One of his certainties, based on his NT years, was that this chunk of South West London/Surrey was prime theatre terrain. At that time he was referring to its audience potential. On the basis of the Rose’s burgeoning youth teams, he could just as well have been talking about the acting talent.
Review by Alan Franks
A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and directed by Ciaran McConville
Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas. He hates charity, he hates carol singers and more than anything he hates spending money. But this is a year like no other as Scrooge is propelled on a helter-skelter, supernatural ride through Christmases past, present and future. From carefree youth to misguided greed, from snowscapes to city streets, this is an epic adventure of the imagination. Will Scrooge open his heart to the true spirit of Christmas before it’s too late?
Promising another heart-warming family production, Ciaran McConville directs a company of actors joined by members of the Rose Youth Theatre in his own brand new adaptation of Dickens’ enchanting story.
Cast: Martin Ball, Elisa Boyd, Tomm Coles, Paul Hawkyard, Anthony Hunt, Anne-Marie Piazza, Jon Trenchard, Rose Youth Theatre
A Christmas Carol
The Rose Theatre
Tuesday 1st December 2015 to Sunday 3rd January 2016