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Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – Alexandra Palace Theatre

I’d say it’s pretty rare for any adult not to know at least the basic plot of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as Mark Gatiss – writer of this adaptation – jokes about in his programme note. The story has been told and retold, parodied, had numerous film and television adaptations, not to mention the classic ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’. A quick Google search shows at least half a dozen adaptations of the story showing in theatres this Christmas, and some even make it a tradition to visit the same production every year. The trouble becomes what makes each adaptation different from the others? The story can easily be perceived through many lenses: a Victorian gothic story, a ghost story, a religious tale, a supernatural thriller, or even a dark comedy. So, what do creatives Gatiss, and director Adam Penford, bring to their version?

The cast of Mark Gatiss’ A Christmas Carol (Photo credit Manuel Harlan)
The cast of Mark Gatiss’ A Christmas Carol (Photo credit Manuel Harlan).

First things first, an overview of the plot for anyone who actually doesn’t know (or needs a quick reminder). Scrooge, a miserly man, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and three ghosts of Christmas: Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The Ghosts take him on a journey to his past, all the way through to his doomed future, where he is reminded of the life he once enjoyed, and revealed the tragedy of his fate if he doesn’t change his ways. As you might predict, these revelations have a deep impact on Scrooge, who ends up filled with a charitable, Christmas spirit.

Gatiss’s script very much leans into the idea of it being a ghost story, as does Penford’s production. For starters, the story is framed by an unidentified narrator, an old man (Geoffrey Beevers) who sits on an armchair and narrates the gaps in the story. The opening also gives us a scene between Scrooge (Keith Allen) and Marley (Peter Forbes), working together at their very tall, thin desks, surrounded by towering piles of filing cabinets in Paul Wills’ dark and gloomy set. When we’re transported seven years into the future, after Marley’s death, his quill comes to life, and papers fly out of his desk, in an attempt to create a really spooky feel.

I can’t recall another adaptation of A Christmas Carol which takes us back seven years, and I’m not convinced it’s totally necessary. With adaptations, the length of the story I think often causes the first challenge, as the original text itself is quite short, so creative teams are often tasked with fleshing out the story to make a full evening of entertainment. However, this production does unfortunately drag quite a bit: adding in fairly unnecessary pieces of narration as part of the framing device, which slows down the pace, and scenes that are just far too long. As Scrooge is shown scenes from his past and present, we practically forget that he’s there as the scene goes on for far too long whilst he’s lost somewhere in the background. Allen does a fine job of taking us through the changes in his character arc: beginning as a grumpy, miserable miser, and by the end giddily jumping around with excitement, with the middle parts showing us a man who is desperate, helpless, to the point we almost feel sorry for him and what he has become. Some of his responses however are too subtle to read; moments for example where Jacob Marley appears in chains, in which Allen doesn’t really seem to react at all. Unfortunately, this just makes the whole thing not that scary, almost becoming comical at points which I think are meant to spook us out.

This is the main problem with the production for me: whilst perhaps trying to draw from across the different genres and styles that you can tell this story with, it ends up becoming a little too inconsistent with itself. At one point, white Ghosts appear from the auditorium, created by puppet designer Matthew Forbes, and flood the stage, and at another, a strange sort of dog is puppeteered through the streets of London. Whilst these moments might work well enough on their own, there’s a lack of consistency with the production aesthetic that just makes these elements feel a bit out of place.

Other elements of Wills’ design are very effective: a backdrop of the London skyline, which seamlessly transforms into a school blackboard or graveyard to help transport us through the various locations. The rest of the set pieces and furniture are moved around in quite a clunky manner, which doesn’t help with the production’s pacing, although do make for atmospheric stage pictures once in place. The touch of snow in the backdrop as part of Nina Dunn’s video design gives it a nice, Christmassy feel.

There are some other engaging performances from the cast, most notably Edward Harrison who finds the nuances in the highs and lows of Bob Cratchit’s story arc, and Forbes’ charismatically grumpy then haunting Marley. Some other lovely moments from the multi-rolling ensemble: Joe Shire’s jolly Fezziwig and Bettrys Jones with quite a kooky Ghost of Christmas Past are standouts, as is James Backway’s very charming Fred.

Alexandra Palace is a beautiful setting for this Christmas story, and the mulled wine from the bar makes for a delicious interval, Christmassy treat, so if you’re a huge fan of the story and fancy some Dickens for the festive period, then it may be well worth the visit.

3 Star Review

Review by Joseph Dunitz

It’s a cold Christmas Eve and mean-spirited miser Ebenezer Scrooge has an unexpected visit from the spirit of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Bound in chains as punishment for a lifetime of greed, the unearthly figure explains it isn’t too late for Scrooge to change his miserly ways in order to escape the same fate, but first he’ll have to face three more eerie encounters…

30 NOV – 7 JAN 2024
Alexandra Palace Theatre
https://www.alexandrapalace.com/

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