As usual, before you enter the Drama Barn, you are offhandedly reminded by the announcer that a certain degree of danger comes with being part of an audience there: “so the fire that exists are here and here … there is lots of smoke, but don’t worry it’s only water vapour …the audience will be standing … the performance is fully interactive … if that’s an issue, just tell us and we can accommodate you …” This is not normally what one might expect when entering a performance of A Christmas Carol, as opposed to something like, say, A Clockwork Orange. But before you are even fully inside and thinking “this is going to be different”, it already is.
Immediately you are greeted by two women in Victorian outfits (played by Marff Pothen and Hannah Forsyth) asking for change for the poor, and it turns out it really is smoky in there — perfectly fitting for a sense of the winter haze that an industrial, coal-fired London could produce. Your attention is then focused by the light on two clerks sitting opposite each other along the length of the wall. The two women are now standing between them, addressing the audience, and begin to co-narrate the context of the setting and the despicable character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Played by Josh Welch, Scrooge is expertly performed as the stingy, sympathy-devoid cynic we expect him to be. And yet curiously, he does not only want to get rid of people as quickly as possible and deny them his attention; he embarks on his own initiative to ridicule them and their values with a certain panache and sarcastic self-righteousness that borders on the comic.
He certainly seems like a Scrooge that lashes out less out of irritation rather than out of the pleasure he can gain from his cruelty. In this sense, his horror in seeing the apparition on the door to his home seems more plausible given the implicit self-awareness of personality, rather than the skepticism and disbelief we witness on Alastair Sim from the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol (of which I use as my main point of reference for the dramatisation of the story). In this version, Scrooge cannot discern any reason to be haunted or punished by his conscience.
The other actors in the play were fantastic, and one role that deserves special mention is the loot scene where one of the actresses puts on a lispy, diabolical accent with the performance to go right along with it.
The space of the room (built by Vita Ingram-Anichkin) is fully utilised and interpreted very creatively to function in 360 degrees. As the scenes change and progress, you are constantly turning around and focusing your attention on a different area of the room that can be used once, or even multiple times, to depict a different setting: an effect that seems to posit a certain circularity of Scrooge’s past, present and future.
To use the word “audience” would be imprecise in the general use of the term; rather, the feeling of being a member in their audience verges between being an entangled spectator to an unscripted actor. During one of the party scenes, cookies are passed around on a platter (of which I didn’t get to eat — the most damning flaw of this production), the dance-hall scene from Scrooge’s past actually pulled in some initially reluctant members of the “audience” for a dance, and in general the characters were constantly moving through the spectators to initiate a new scene in a different part of the room. When the ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Joel Bates, indicates to Scrooge the apparitions of people suffering as a result of his actions, I had the uncanny feeling that I was one of them as well.
However, I think there could have been more use made of Scrooge’s bed which was on a sort of mezzanine — accessible by ladder — since it was one of the only instances when the audience’s perspective shifted vertically rather than horizontally.
There must be some space given for the music in the production, because it was absolutely fantastic. The caroling during and in-between scenes accompanied by a violin and the main characters was great. It was especially given a great touch at the dinner party of Scrooge’s nephew Fred (who is played by Joel Bates) where one of the women is all too eager to sing, only to be envious when she is operatically out-sung by a festively oblivious Fred.
Whatever narrative or plot purpose the singing had, the music was simply enjoyable to listen to. The lighting (thanks to Stephen Hutt) was also very effective when combined with the shift in scene-setting, and it was particularly powerful with the Ghost of Things to Come, who becomes inconspicuously illuminated at the opposite end of the room while we are busy focusing and pitying Scrooge.
One of the things I was at a loss to understand was the absence of Tiny Tim as a character in the play. He is depicted in a miniature theatre as a marionette with a crutch who falls and is then helped up again by another marionette. The scene is played along to a kind of circus or vaudeville soundtrack which gives it the overriding element of farce, and which seems subsequently at odds with Scrooge’s genuine concern for Tiny Tim’s well-being. The same theatre-marionette mechanism is used again to depict Scrooge’s grave, but soon after Scrooge himself looks upon a life-sized grave, which makes the marionette version seem redundant and undermining of the overarching tone of the story.
Another moment in the production that I found lacking was the scene where Scrooge decides to take on his nephew’s dinner invitation, which felt rushed and awkward and didn’t allow Scrooge the time and heartbreaking suspense to say the beautiful line “Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with—all these years?” Furthermore, at another point in the play, the revelation “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, but now I know that I don’t know anything!” was omitted.
These are only minor gripes, though; my overall reception to the staging and performance of the play is overwhelmingly positive in every way, and I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this production in constructing such a refreshing and excellent adaptation of a text that has already seen considerable adaptation over the past century. There is no doubt that the standard set by the Drama Barn remains consistently exceptional.