It’s the right kind of setting for a show like A Christmas Carol, the historic Middle Temple Hall, where (according to the show’s programme) Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night had its first performance in 1602 – and this production from Antic Disposition pulls out all the stops to make this an engrossing experience, even without any major surprises in the narrative for anyone familiar with the Charles Dickens novel. Now in its fifth year, the production has its repeat customers – one family told your reviewer that they felt this year’s show was ‘different’ from last year’s, though quite how would be revealing too much.
The costumes are appropriate for the period – for the most part: I may be clutching at straws here but there was a little bit of imagination required because the poorer people in Victorian London didn’t look all that raggedy and desperate. With the audience seated on three sides, some of the scenes were notably blocked better for those sat in the centre block relative to those sat on the sides. I couldn’t help noticing a child in the corner of my eye momentarily palpably struggling to maintain focus – and who could blame him when all he could see were the backs of Bob Cratchit (Haydn Oakley) and his family.
The acoustics in the hall are mostly adequate, especially when the four musicians (led ably by Ben Everett-Riley) are supported by actor-musicians. But the odd spoken line was missed here and there, at least from my vantage point. Again, because of the seating configuration, someone is more often than not speaking upstage to one or more groups in the audience at any given moment, however much they move around. I would have liked to hear Ebenezer Scrooge’s (David Burt) putdowns in their entirety, for instance, without too much of an echo (and perhaps I can after all, dependent on how much content the production has put on their studio recording, which I couldn’t help buying in the interval).
It is unusual for a show to leave someone uncredited, and this one has its reasons (whatever they are), to put a mere question mark instead of someone’s name against ‘The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come’. Granted, it’s a non-speaking part, and by this point Scrooge appears to have more or less received and understood what is required of him once the ghost visitations are over – there are four here, not three, because (the ghost of) Jacob Marley (Chris Courtenay) is, rightly, counted as the first one to appear.
I must confess I saw a bit of Scrooge in me, albeit fleetingly – his dismissal of those he passes on the street who are soliciting money for good causes is not unlike my own curt responses to ‘charity muggers’ in central London. Funny how some things don’t really change all that much. Familiar seasonal tunes are reworded to advance the narrative – for instance, a couple of verses of a version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ ends with the refrain, “O tidings of humbug and gloom / Misery, doom / O tidings of humbug and gloom!” The production is not afraid of throwing in a bit of contemporary topicality here and there – when Scrooge starts handing out coins, he declares “the end of austerity”. Well, we can but hope.
Nick Barstow’s musical arrangements are a pleasure to listen to, poignant in places and celebratory in others, and thankfully never melodramatic. This engaging production is a unique experience and, whatever its shortcomings, it’s a memorable and useful reminder to (in the old adage) ‘work hard, play hard’.
Review by Chris Omaweng
First staged in 2012 and firmly established as one of London’s most magical Christmas treats, this festive celebration combines the ghostly tale of Ebenezer Scrooge with original songs inspired by the carols of a traditional Victorian Christmas.
Step off the bustle of Fleet Street and journey through cobbled alleyways and gas-lit courtyards to arrive at the hidden historical gem Middle Temple Hall – a location well-known to Charles Dickens himself, who studied law at the ancient institution.
The cast of fourteen multi-talented actor-musicians is led by West End star David Burt (Enjolras in the original cast of Les Misérables; original cast of Evita) in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, Haydn Oakley (An American in Paris; Sunset Boulevard) as Bob Cratchit and – in his first ever appearance in the role – theatrical legend Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Writer Charles Dickens
Book and Lyrics Ben Horslen and John Risebero
Music Nick Barstow
Directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero
Performers Geri Allen, Katie Lovell, Megan Ashley, Timothy Mylechreest, David Burt, Haydn Oakley, Chris Courtenay, Nigel Richards, Elliot Fitzpatrick, Noah Swer-Fox, Lucy Ford, Matt Whipps, Jacob Fullagar.
A Christmas Carol
Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, London, EC4Y 9AT
Saturday 21st – Monday 30th December 2019