Monthly Archives: December 2020

Sunset Boulevard in Concert – Curve Leicester

Sunset Boulevard - Curve Leicester (by Marc Brenner)

There are many reasons why Curve Leicester’s digital production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert is the most fitting end to a year in which theatre and film have moved closer than ever, regional theatres have grasped the opportunities of digital performance far quicker than the West End and musical theatre has been most adaptive to the plethora of pandemic restrictions. After a summer advocating and lobbying for reopening and testing equipment to make venues Covid-safe for audiences and performers, it felt entirely appropriate that an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was the first professional production staged in London in late summer – the stunning Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Lloyd Webber also facilitated the first indoor public musical at the Palladium, Songs for a New World (perhaps now tentatively) scheduled to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in February, and now the online premiere of Nikoloai Foster’s version of Sunset Boulevard sees out the year.

Filmed within the last fortnight, Curve Leicester puts a new spin on the hybrid theatre-film approach by using all the possibilities of its empty auditorium to expand the playing space to create a production that retains the simplicity of a concert staging focused on characters and plot with only costume to suggest era and place. At the same time, Foster deliberately takes the audience out of the story, making visible the cameras, lighting rigs, crew and fellow cast members creating this digital version of Sunset Boulevard in Concert as the actors traverse the front and non-stage spaces of the venue. Almost Brechtian in style, it takes a few minutes to get used to but soon becomes a clever representation of the musical’s circular genesis from extraordinary 1950 movie by Billy Wilder to musical theatre production to now, once again, being committed to film.

Sunset Boulevard with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s five greatest scores, sitting alongside Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technnicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, all of which have music that immersively characterise their protagonist and their experience within the story. Often referencing the musical rhythms of their location, these shows use their score purposefully to reflect the interior emotional trajectory of their lead(s). Still within the bounds of musical theatre, Phantom, for example has an operatic pomp full of baroque stylings, threat and romantic innocence drawn to the bass notes of darkness, while Evita‘s quite different political style captures the verve of revolution tempered by the complex dance rhythms of the Argentine tango and choral intensity of the Catholic requiem – but both create, reflect and enhance the psychological experience of the story.

Drawing on the sweeping styles of Silent Movie scores, Lloyd Webber does something quite different with Sunset Boulevard, eschewing the song and dance numbers that musical theatre law determines should open and close each Act, and instead draws inspiration from the small-scale intimacy of Wilder’s film where the narrator Joe Gillis and the tragic-strength of Norma Desmond are the focus. Sunset Boulevard has a couple of full-cast numbers about the lure of fame as desperate starlets, screenwriters and directors hope to make their mark but these events merely swirl around the central characters giving focus and context to their purpose in the story.

And that is not to say that the music is in any way smaller or quieter than Lloyd Webber’s other work; in fact Sunset Boulevard is akin to Phantom in its grandiosity using the sweeping and soaring of a full orchestra to open out the musical’s central themes of delusion, fantasy, the brief lifespan of stardom and the emotional truth beneath the facade of celebrity. Within its two Act structure there is a fragile bombast that entirely captures the contradictory notes in Norma’s personality, the grand dreams and memories that rouse and stir as she reflects on the life she had, with minor key reflections on the tragedy of her fall and the destructive tumult of her deluded self-awareness.

In scoring his leading lady, Lloyd Webber also notably draws on Middle Eastern sounds to reflect Norma’s obsession with Salome and there are hints woven through the instrumental elements of the score that emerge in As If We Never Said Goodbye as well as the famous conclusion. But there is also verve and energy that musically creates the whirl of Hollywood and life on a movie set, seen in the faster-paced title song sung by Joe at the beginning of the second Act and the frenzy of Joe’s escape from the baliffs with Act One’s car chase.

Foster for Curve Leicester pins the shape of his production around these musical cues from Lloyd Webber, adding layers of film to these sections that create a rush of energy during the chase scene or flicker with black and white images of Paramount Studios in its heyday. But what sets this hybrid production apart is its emphasis on the specific theatre origins of this production. Many of this year’s attempts to digitally represent a stage performance have, like an NT Live showing, taken an immersive approach, trying to take the audience as close to the story as possible while still maintaining the illusion of theatre.

This version of Sunset Boulevard instead makes a virtue of its scratch staging, denuding the production of elaborate scenery and setting to utilise (and thereby promote) the various spaces of the Curve auditorium, as though activity, encounters and plot devices spring from the building. And Foster’s approach serves a duel purpose, showcasing the facilities of the in-the-round space created to house the company, orchestra and camera crew while the theatre remains closed, while purposefully reinforcing the themes and purpose of Wilder, Lloyd Webber, Black and Hampton’s story that focuses on the mechanics of film making, the underbelly of Hollywood and the fairweather nature of fame.

Designed by Colin Richmond, with the orchestra placed in the stalls, scenes occur on the central circular platform, in various points in the seating on three sides of the stage, along the audience walkways and most atmospherically in the Circle where Norma Desmond makes her dramatic first appearance. This movement around the front of house performance space gives Foster’s production an added verve, suggesting the changing locations from the main-house and room above the garage within Norma’s extensive mansion to the Paramount lot and Schwabs Drug Store where Joe first encounters Betty, adding drama and intimacy that builds a considerable emotional and dramatic effect as the story unfolds.

The viewer is Joe’s confident, addressing us through the camera as he narrates his own history, a reliable if critical narrator who becomes increasingly aware of the compromises of his own character. Returning continuously to this device throughout, it grounds the production ensuring the we retain Joe’s point of view as the camera actively seeks him out, finding him in the stalls and gantries or underneath the seat rigging where his encounters with other characters come to life or Joe watches his life unfold with powerless hindsight.

It sounds frentic but underneath the layers of film, what emerges from these intriguing staging choices is a deepening emotional connection to and between the characters, one that immerses the audience in the unfolding tragedy of Norma Desomond’s determined comeback. The show really comes alive with her arrival theatrically lit by Ben Cracknell in the Circle where she delivers one of the show’s biggest numbers With One Look, and the balcony location proves to be a vital one for Norma, the only character (apart from butler Max) featured there and vital to her famous finale walk down the steps towards the baying news cameras.

Ria Jones offers superb vocal and performative range as Norma, grand, ostentatious and determined, in love with her own fame and its once potent effect on others but now fragile, tentative and almost agoraphobic in her inability to interact with the modern world. Jones shows a woman trapped in her own past, almost frozen in time and deeply deluded about her value and allure, as well as the practicalities of 1950s talkie film-making. Norma Desmond is a crazed figure but Jones never lets her seem entirely disassociated from reality – certainly not until the show’s intense conclusion – and there is real style and strength in her presentation of Norma, a woman not to be gainsaid or duped, admirably certain of her value and what is owed to her status.

Her relationship with Joe, though arguably one-sided in terms of genuine feeling, is given credibility by Jones, showing Norma as a once desirable prize still able to bewitch Joe with more than just money and lifestyle, a quality that pulls him back to her at the fateful New Year party. Her knowing attempts to manipulate him feel calculated in Jones’s interpretation, a selfish certainty that only her needs matter, and these contradictions only make Norma’s behaviour and pointed refusal to ‘surrender’ more understandable though nonetheless tragic. Musically, Jones is triumphant, delivering some of the best songs Lloyd Webber has written with incredible range while her return to Paramount number As If We Never Said Goodbye becomes quietly moving.

Danny Mac gives Joe plenty of causal swagger in the early part of the show, though besieged by creditors and down on his luck, this is Joe at his most assured and cheeky. But one fascinating aspect of this Curve production is to show how keenly this story is as much about Joe’s delusion as it is Norma’s and how violently that comes crashing down for the both of them. When Joe’s absorption into Norma’s lifestyle increases, we see a more cynical film noir hero, with Mac showing a character ashamed of himself, almost surprised at how quickly he sold out for easy comforts, but so enmeshed in them that he refuses to go back to the bleak life he once had.

This more compromised version of Joe emerges before us in Mac’s charismatic performance, overwhelmed not so much by Norma’s unwavering attention and demands but stifled increasingly by his own guilt as the months pass. What saves Joe from appearing grasping and unsympathetic is the sensitive and heartfelt connection he develops with very likeable fellow-writer Betty Schaefer (a rounded performance from the excellent Molly Lynch) that develops subtly over a few scenes in Act Two and quickly becomes the impossible escape from his situation that Joe still dreams of but recognises can never be. Admitting their feelings in Too Much in Love to Care is sweetly performed here by Mac and Lynch while their parting moment is gently devastating.

Jones’s performance may be the showpiece one, but Mac pins the show together, mirroring the experience of the audience as we encounter the strange events of this story and its characters, while charting the development of Joe from worldly but free writer to kept-man disgusted with his own nature. Joe’s own Hollywood dream is shown to be every bit as unlikely as Norma’s, and finding that he is unable to make it on his own despite plenty of friends in the business and Betty’s guidance which comes too late, Mac’s Joe reaches his tragic breaking point.

By presenting the complexity of its characters, Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert builds to a powerful and emotive conclusion. Like Sondheim’s Follies, this is story about the ghosts of the past haunting the present, where characters filled with regret reflect on what they have become. This very different approach to hybrid performance centers on the sweeping emotional turmoil of Lloyd Webber’s music, pays tribute to Wilder’s original film and showcases the Curve Leicester venue; it certainly offers ‘new ways to dream,’ proving a beautiful and fitting finale to a year of considerable change for theatre.

Sunset Boulevard in Concert is available digitally from Leicester Curve until 9 January and tickets cost £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet

The Nutcracker - Birmingham Royal Ballet (by Bill Cooper)

For the nation’s theatres just days before Christmas there is very little to feel festive about in what should be their most lucrative period of the year. Instead, with much of the country moved to Tier 3 and even 4 with 24-hours notice in many cases pantos are off, Christmas concerts closed down and yuletide fayre mothballed. In a year of yo-yo opening, the reorientation to digital performance has been one of 2020’s defining features so it seems appropriate that the final posts of the year celebrate companies denied a physical audience but determined to present their work online.

Last week the Old Vic premiered its latest version of A Christmas Carol while later this week Leicester Curve show their delayed production of Sunset Boulevard captured live. And for one week only, Birmingham Royal Ballet present their pared down 90-minute production of The Nutcracker and if anything will make you feel Christmassy, then this new approach co-managed by Carlos Acosta and Sean Foley will put a warm glow in your heart.

Originally scheduled to run at the REP for two weeks followed by a stint at the Royal Albert Hall – previously cancelled when the restrictions of Tier 2 allowed insufficient venue capacity to profitably stage the show – The Nutcracker is everything you could want at the end of this glum and gloomy December. Full of Christmas magic, it combines three choreographic visions and celebrates 30-years since Sir Peter Wright’s first Birmingham Nurcracker which was then adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by Sir David Bintely and now reconfigured once more for the REP smaller stage and proscenium by latest Director of the ballet Acosta whose first season has been so pointedly disrupted.

That there have been three heads in the mix over three decades is barely noticeable and this version of the story flows seamlessly, creating the requisite feeling of magical transformation and escape while drawing out some of the darker hints beneath the surface of the story. The use of masks for the pre-transformed Nutcracker and Sweets is disturbing while the small but vitally disruptive purpose of King Rat casts a notable shadow over the gleeful revelry of the various party scenes. That evil and ugliness will be defeated by the beauty and kindness of the reanimated toys and the heroine Clara is never in doubt but the visual experience of this Nutcracker notes that there must be some darkness for good to triumph.

There is also the smallest flavour of what it means to be a child and an adult, so here the usually girlish Clara is more certainly on the cusp of womanhood, still playing with dolls perhaps but flirting and flattered by the attentions of the young soldier who dances with her at the family Christmas Eve gathering in Act One. Performed by Max Maslen, this young man seems quite besotted and unwilling to leave his charming companion at the end of the night. Later when the Nutcracker (Gus Payne) comes to life, whisking Clara away to the magical Land of Sweets, there is a suggestion of chemistry between them that fizzes beyond that of innocent object and owner enhanced by Tchaikovsky’s stirring score.

Clara’s personal rites of passage transformation seems complete in Act Two when the four Arabian dancers perform a rather sultry piece focused on the seductive qualities of the pivotal female figure (Eilis Small) who falls eagerly into the arms of her three male companions danced by Haoliang Fang, Callum Findlay-White and Alexander Yap. Alongside the more comedic and romantic presentation of international confectionery, this suggestion that Clara is becoming more worldly and thereby more womanly is notable and casts a slightly different light than the chocolate-box adaptations often seen.

Staging The Nutcracker

Based on John Macfarlane’s original designs for Birmingham Royal Ballet, eschewing some of the twinklier approaches, this 2020 production is a painterly vision that makes each of the three set-piece locations feel tonally and stylistically aligned. It opens with a huge painted backdrop of a Victorian London street, a vision in watercolour at twilight as the sun sets on Christmas Eve and the first lamps are lit. It is instantly grounding for the viewer, immersing us in this familiar wintry scene as the soldierly guests heading for the Stahlbaum party have a snowball fight before giving way to the plush and cosy interior of the family home dominated by a giant Christmas tree.

Colour is vital to the coherence of the production and the deep burgundy room feels comforting, matched in the stunning costume design for Clara’s mother by Elaine Garlick, a vision in maroon with scarlet ruffles. Later the Spanish dancers and the fairies wear a similar hue in the Land of Sweets where the painted backdrop of burgundy, teal and gold with renaissance sun design echoes some of the colour choices used throughout the production helping to transport the viewer between worlds as each of the set pieces comes alive on screen.

Vitally, these backdrops are designed to be evocative but not to overpower the dancing, so the richness of Macfarlane’s artistry compliments and enhances the physical performance with costumes and choreography designed to stand out against the simplicity of the staging. Other versions of The Nutcracker can tend towards the elaborate, silver coaches, glittering tutus and as many dramatic flourishes as possible, but Acosta and Foley’s vision manages to achieve the same sumptuous effect with far less complexity.

The fight between the Nutcracker Doll and the Rat King is a centre piece moment, focusing on the swordplay between them but Macfarlane introduces hints of dissension and war with a Les Miserables-inspired red cloud that moves across the now projected Christmas tree. Enhanced by Johnny Westall-Eyre’s lighting and the red sashes across tailcoats worn by the flag-waving Rat army , it cleverly and in minimalist form implies a mood of revolution. Visual simplicity also enhances the Pine Forest scene at the end of Act One, becoming a Swan Lake-like vision in white as snowflake dancers in softer, loose skirts fill the stage with activity led by Alys Shee as the Snow Fairy. Mcfarlane’s backdrop is a flat screen of white and silver branches or arteries, crossing and linking into one another against which this beautiful scene unfolds.

Storytelling, Choreography and Performance

A perennial children’s favourite, The Nutcracker is one of the simplest stories and most of the plot occurs in Act One with the magician Drosselmeyer (Jonathan Payn) transforming the family party, the revivified Nutcracker doll coming to life and the defeat of the Rat King, while Act Two is an extended celebration of dance as various Sweets perform their routines. While this Birmingham Royal Ballet digital version is slightly reduced, it loses nothing in narrative clarity with each character and event made clear through the choreography.

Dance, of course, is a visual language all of its own but there are many cross-overs with opera and, particularly in this case, with theatre. There are lots of characterful roles on offer that require acting skill from the Company, not least Payn’s Drosselmeyer who dances very little but must mutely perform a variety of magic tricks for the Christmas Eve gathering while later commanding the transmogrification of inanimate objects to make them a physical and celebratory presence in Clara’s dream. Payn’s performance is pitched just right, grand gestures that are exuberant enough to suggest his showmanship (and possibly his arrogance) that suit the imaginative fantasy of the story, but nonetheless generously focused on Clara experience.

The creation of a family is neatly done and while the dancing is relatively limited in the opening sequence, the bustle of the Stahlbaum’s party, the distinction between guests and children as well as the various social niceties that shape people’s interaction are well suggested. The range of emotional experiences from joy to boredom, frustration to relief are often comical as Clara in particular must fight off the over eager and destructive attentions of her younger brother Fritz (Ben Whittaker-Brown) while her parents indulge and then chastise their children (Small and Valentin Olovyannikov). Acosta and Foley’s production has precision in its creation of people and place that gives even the casual viewer a structure to follow as the story unfolds.

That clarity becomes even more important in the extended dance sequences in the Pine Forest and the Land of Sweets where the corps de ballet take on a variety of different roles including the soldiers, snowflakes, fairies and global sweet selection. The style in each of these sections is slightly different while needing to be a unified whole as Clara and the Nutcracker journey through the magical realm. And choreography becomes important in achieving this, using a stilted wooden doll effect for the first appearance of the marching Nutcracker, later replicated in the opening sequence of Act Two as stiff-limb creatures are slowly brought to life by the magician.

The Land of Sweets has some of the most famous music in ballet and even if this is your first Nutcracker many of the segments will be familiar. Each of the international dance sets has its own unique style and tone, from the sprightly Spanish dancers (Beatrice Parma, Gabriel Anderson and Kit Holder) to the coordinated and energetic showcase of the Russian trio (Ryan Felix, Gus Payne and Shuailun Wu), the sultry Arabian group and the humorous bounce of the Chinese duo (Maslen and Tzu-Chao Chou). Momoko Hirata and Cesar Morales as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince create a fairy-tale pas de deux to conclude the charming celebration of dance.

All of this hinges around Karla Doorbar’s Clara who pins the show together with a performance that treads the line between girlish glee and excitement about the experiences opening-up before her and the development of a more knowing response to the world. Fantasy and escape from both the irritations of her family but also from her own childhood are strongly conveyed in Doorbar’s Clara as she is transported and transformed within the story.

Premiering on Friday evening and now available on demand until Christmas Eve, this Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker includes an introduction to the Company and a brief overview of the story for viewers new to the ballet and a very interesting short interval video that goes behind the scenes at rehearsal to show Covid precautions including masks and use of video platforms to give rehearsal notes. There are also short interviews with some of the Principles, the younger cast members and retiring Assistant Director Marion Tait who talks about the genesis of this version over the last 30 years.

While Tier 3 and 4 venues remain closed those like the Old Vic, Leicester Curve and the Birmingham Royal Ballet have been able to reorientate new work for a digital international audience providing much needed support at a crucial time. Integral to the festive Birmingham experience, the chance to watch this delightful production of The Nutcracker from home is a rare silver lining in an otherwise troubled month for the performing arts and a chance to sprinkle a bit of the socially distant Christmas magic we all need to end the year.

The Nutcracker is available on demand from Birmingham Royal Ballet until 24 December with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

A Christmas Carol – Old Vic: In Camera

A Christmas Carol - Old Vic In Camera

It is week two of the A Christmas Carol Cold War in London’s West End and the turn of the Old Vic who have made their new digital production available to international audiences online until Christmas Eve. A very different prospect from the wonderfully atmospheric take on Dickens’s festive ghost story currently running at the Bridge Theatre, this In Camera version (also with a 90-minute running time) uses increasingly sophisticated Zoom techniques to transcend the social distancing challenges of delivering such a large scale production.

An annual event at the Old Vic for several years with previous Scrooges including Rhys Ifans, Paterson Joseph and Stephen Tomkinson, this In Camera production marks a return to the stage for Andrew Lincoln who takes on the mantel of Jack Thorne’s slightly younger interpretation of the central character whose Thatcherite individualism refuses to be thawed by the succession of spirits determined to show him the error of his ways. Thorne’s Scrooge is unswayable, refusing to be made misty eyed by the memories of his past or feel any responsibility for the lives of those his business touches, certain his path is the right one.

Reorientating the Story

If this is your inaugural experience of the Old Vic’s interpretation, then the first thing you will notice is that Thorne’s version of this most famous of festive stories is a little different, using Dickens’s novella as a frame to draw on the descriptive passages and dialogue but curtailing or entirely dispensing with some of the better known segments to expand the story outward. Most notable is the inclusion of a psychological backstory far larger than the one that the Ghost of Christmas Past traditionally reveals, and while a whistlestop tour of school days and Fezziwig’s party are included, the insertion of Scrooge’s father is most unexpected.

Why Scrooge was at the boarding school in the first place becomes part of an origins story of child abuse, violence and paternal disappointment that shapes Ebenezer’s later attitudes and activities. Thorne includes several scenes in which the cold and contemptuous head of the family taunts his notably motherless son, expressing a lack of faith in the younger Scrooge’s ability to provide for them. And himself laden with debt, this father character appears across the first two ghostly visitations expressing disapproval that adds an extra dimension in Thorne’s more deterministic trajectory for Scrooge taking him from schoolboy to miserly financier determined to chart a different path to his overbearing and less successful father. There is a strong family theme throughout the production that equally builds on Scrooge’s adoration of his sister Little Fan, a purity of feeling that becomes increasingly vital as he eventually reconsiders his life.

Thorne tinkers with the story in several other ways, playing on the darker thematic elements around death to make Fezziwig a funeral director rather than a merchant allowing this version of Scrooge to demonstrate his more grasping traits far earlier than Dickens suggests. And while Belle is usually a momentary figure that Scrooge exchanges as his greed grows, Thorne – drawn to a love story – initially shows her to be the placating influence that could have redirected Scrooge’s fiscal obsession and then uses her as a recurring character against whom Scrooge can measure the success of his life choices. Belle’s subsequent family happiness is thus relocated to scenes presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present and she again appears in a slightly reconfigured redemption sequence at the end.

The production races along, dispensing with much of Dickens’s preamble and scene setting and reaching the arrival of Marley almost immediately. Act One is only 50-minutes accounting for three of the four spiritual ventures while Act Two is around 40-minutes so many of the familiar crutches are excised or limited to passing comments. Tiny Tim becomes even tinier, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is recast as a familiar character while most of its visions are condensed into one funereal scene. Thorne also plays around with the structure of the story to bring Bob and Fred into Scrooge’s future for a brief oration that makes sense both of their innate goodness as people but also their persistence in upholding a relationship with the man they should both consider a lost cause.

But perhaps Thorne’s most intriguing change is to tinker with concepts of reality in the final section of the story when a seemingly redeemed Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning born again. There are no eager urchins and giant turkeys here, and while Thorne provides the usual bombastic joy of redemption in which the now light-hearted hero spreads good cheer and charity throughout London, the return of the three ghosts for one last encounter with Scrooge forces the audience and the character to reconsider what they have just experienced.

Best of all is the decision to let the actor in the role of Scrooge play all versions of himself throughout other than his earliest appearance as a schoolboy. It means the title character is less an observer of his past, present and future, standing in the shadows and watching it unfold but an active participant, reinforcing the concept that this is his life which he recreates for the audience as a means of reconnecting with it.

Most of the changes work well and while film in particular has been perhaps too in love with unnecessary origins stories in recent years, the chance to expand on and reset this overly-familiar Christmas story is an interesting one. Brief by Dickens’s standards, A Christmas Carol retains its eternally captivating hold over us because the characters feel as though they exist beyond the confines of the novel; that Scrooge lived before and after the period of Dickens’s tale is something Thorne uses to open out the story and distinguish it from the many competing adaptations, of which there are many this year. Purists may not be so kind.

The Filming Style

This is by far the most ambitious In Camera production to date, including both a far larger cast and a much longer run than previous productions – Lungs, Three Kings and Faith Healer. And across the series (all briefly available as pre-recorded encore showings in recent weeks), it is clear how much Matthew Warchus and his camera team have learnt about the various ways to tell stories on film within the limitations of the side-by-side Zoom box functionality, a feat that was relatively manageable with only a couple characters speaking at any one time.

But, A Christmas Carol is far more complex, requiring the In Camera team to rethink direction, blocking and scene structure to capture several socially distanced actors at once. It opens with a montage effect in which eight boxes containing a bell ringing narrator edge the screen around a central picture, after which the middle image expands to fill half of the screen and this multilayered, multi-camera effect is used throughout with varying success. At its best, it allows actors to have dialogue with one another in close-up, creating intimacy and grounding in the story as scenarios come quickly to life, particularly effective in conversations between Scrooge and Belle as she sizes him up during their first meeting or later through a doorway that uses the edges of the prop frame to allude to their proximity.

The technique is used frequently, splicing the screen in two or three boxes as Scrooge interacts with the various people in his life usually watched over by one of the Ghosts. For it to work effectively it requires considerable technical management by the actors, knowing exactly where to stand at the right moment in a busy and fast moving live performance to create the illusion of direct conversation when one camera cannot capture all parties. In the first weekend outing, this didn’t always go to plan as arms or an actor’s movement accidentally intruded into another camera shot making them appear in two places at once which the longer run will have time to polish. While the possibilities of Zoom have come a long way this year, its limitations cannot replicate the cutting techniques of film in capturing action and reaction as competently as perhaps the National Theatre Live team did so recently with Death of England (Delroy) Occasionally hectic in direction, these side-by-side boxes and attempts to move rapidly between then is sometimes too jarring and creates a little falsity in the set-up.

But the most impressive aspect of this digital A Christmas Carol is the live layering of images to create spectral scenes. This was a technique used to great effect by Chichester Theatre recently in Crave to transition between the actors and only visible to those watching the live stream. Here, it really comes into its own by creating echoed images that overlay one another to impressively create scenes hauntingly reanimated by the Ghosts. Visually this is a full screen shot in which Scrooge can move freely and safely around the stage among what look like semi-transparent phantoms filmed elsewhere and merged with the central image. The production team also create twin images of individuals on stage and blur them to suggest the bustle and exuberance of the London crowds on Christmas Day which gives the production a dynamic feel as it builds to a positive conclusion.

The Theatre Techniques

Some of the best moments though are those in which the theatre techniques of the Old Vic are given prominence; seeing the darkened auditorium illuminated by hanging lanterns is beautiful and transporting food from the Lilian Baylis Circle to the stage via fabric chute is wonderfully inventive. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is to be much admired creating shadow and stark white spotlight to evoke the changing mood of the story while bathing the scene in shades of warm purple that bring the room alive onscreen. Rob Howell’s Victorian costumes and minimal props nod to the traditional while Christopher Nightingale’s original music performed live in the Dress Circle by Will Stuart, Chris Allan, Clare Taylor, Martin Robertson and Pedro Vieira da Silva is understated but integral to the pace and shape of the story.

In celebration of the purely theatre elements of this show, Andrew Lincoln’s Scrooge is a joy, overcoming the strangeness of a hybrid production and the numerous challenges of the presentation style to deliver a more vigorous interpretation of the man than often seen. He is also considerably meaner, almost admirably so with his refusal to be swayed by the tricks of the three ghosts and resolute that his ability to take care of himself remains the correct choice for him.

He rejects the vary basis for change so soundly that his eventual redemption may seem rather sudden and the audience may enjoy his lack of sentimentality about his past or the concept of Christmas, even coming to quite like his irascible refusal to be cowed on the say so of some interfering other worldly beings – this is a man who knows who he is. But amidst the swirling Zoom adventures, Lincoln brings a real gravitas to proceedings, anchoring the production and delivering a performance of variety and skill that will leave you hoping he returns to the stage more often in the future.

There is good support from Melissa Allan as Scrooge’s sister Little Fan who has far more purpose here, while Maria Omakinwa stepping in as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Golda Rosheuvel as the Ghost of Christmas Present offer some no nonsense spirits that develop a connection with each other as well as the protagonist. Clive Rowe is great as Fezziwig and chief bell ringer / narrator while Michael Rouse brings fright as both Marley and Scrooge senior.

The In Camera series has really pushed the boundaries of live theatre this year for a venue unable to reopen, and while this one is not yet perfect, the Old Vic is thinking hard about the narrative and technical aspects of the audience experience. Running for the fourth time, the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is now an annual tradition of a not quite traditional interpretation. Circumstances may have changed this year but necessity is the mother of invention and this transition to online production will only go from strength to strength as the run continues.

A Christmas Carol runs at the via the Old Vic: In Camera series until 24 December with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

A Christmas Carol – Bridge Theatre

A Christmas Carol - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

As the curtain rises on Act Three of this year’s theatre story – and as we know anything that has two intervals can only be a long and complex saga – one story will dominate the next few weeks, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with three new productions opening in the West End alone. Whatever type of Scrooge you’re after, there’ll be a version for you; the Old Vic have their (now) annual tale of joyous redemption performed as part of their In Camera series with Andrew Lincoln making a surprise return to the stage; the Dominion premieres a musical version with Brian Conley and, first, the Bridge Theatre puts Simon Russel Beale in the title role in an atmospheric semi-narrated version that sparkles with ghostly Christmas chill.

After the Nativity, A Christmas Carol is probably the greatest and best known Christmas story, produced most years with everyone from Albert Finney to Michael Caine, Bill Murray to Alastair Sim, Paterson Joseph and Guy Pearce in the title role of Ebenezer Scrooge. There have been films, mini-series and plays, there have been musical and dance versions, there has been social realism, comedy and spookiness, narrative and even Muppets so a fresh perspective on Dickens is far from straightforward. Yet, the Bridge Theatre has found one.

Drawing heavily on the original novella, Dickens is credited as the writer and meaningfully so for the words described to explain plot points and character descriptions are taken directly from his pages and are used to shape this 90-minute play. Adapted and directed by Nicholas Hytner, this version of A Christmas Carol is distinguished by using three performers who share the narrative duties and play all of the roles, creating scenarios with a minimal collection of props designed to feel like a well-prepared scratch performance, as though scenes are emerging spontaneously before us.

By leaning so heavily on the original text rather than paraphrasing or embellishing for modern audiences, the more atmospheric aspects of Dickens’s writing are released, asking the audience to use their imagination and the writer’s evocative language to picture the various aspects of the story whether the grimly real dudgeon of Scrooge’s office, the urban poverty of London’s streets or the more magical and supernatural aspects of the unfolding drama. Prompted by the actors with voice, accessories and lighting effects, there is a sense of confederacy between the storytellers and the viewer, meeting one another halfway between audio drama and a full-blown realist production.

And that makes it all the more effective and affecting, borrowing the novelists’ tricks and abilities to transport a reader both through time and space as well as into a character’s emotional interior experience and using the possibilities of live theatre to create a genuine connection with this perhaps over-familiar story arc. There are so many versions of A Christmas Carol this year alone but that brings with it several kinds of burden, not only the comparison with predecessors and peer productions but the heavier weight of audience expectation and anticipation caused by over-familiarity with the text.

To be fully immersed in a story audiences already know well is a very difficult thing for theatremakers to achieve. With plays and stories adapted frequently, sometimes they can feel like a box ticking exercise against which the viewer measures the progress of the play and how much more there is yet to come. Watching a production of Hamlet for example might use it’s key milestone – the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, the arrival of the Players, the gravedigger and the fencing match – as anticipatory markers in which the act of waiting for them is almost a failure of the production to grip the audience and make the events of the play feel impulsive and alive with possibility.

The same notion applies to A Christmas Carol, most people in the room know what’s coming and whether the show lasts 90-minutes or three hours, the shape, trajectory and outcome of this tale is already fixed in the collective mind of the room before it begins. What the Bridge Theatre manage so successfully in this new production is to work with that to draw the audience into the collective act of creation using Dickens’s evocative prose as the basis for suspending our disbelief and jointly imagining the scenarios sparsely presented on stage, by drawing-out Scrooge’s transformatory arc more distinctly and much earlier than other versions.

The result is a more emotive experience, as Scrooge’s regret begins with the Ghost of Christmas Past and grows through the remaining visitations. In Hytner’s adaptation, Scrooge himself becomes a more sympathetic figure as the effects of his chilly boarding school childhood and growth into a unscrupulous young businessmen are intriguingly countered by the sense of personal loss that Scrooge experiences as he revisits the scenes of his past. Not just the path that took him away from the possibility of love and ordinary family life in adulthood but, crucially, we see the loss of a sense of fun, enjoyment and connection to other people that the elder Scrooge feels more keenly as he remembers the lightness of dancing at Fezziwig’s Christmas party and the relationship with his beloved sister. The point of this story comes then, not merely from making Scrooge a more charitable figure, but reconnecting him to the man he once was and could have been.

Hytner uses a tripartite narrative structure sharing storytelling duties evenly between actors Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo who weave seamlessly between the figure of omniscient author overseeing and controlling events and the various Dickensian creations they inhabit along the way. The less-is-more approach offers just enough visual intimation to successfully move the show between its various locations and time periods while itself remaining fairly timeless in its setting. One of the productions smartest achievements is to feel both modern and Victorian at the same time using costume, props and video projection to honour the circumstances of the original story while still keeping more than a foot in contemporary style, a feat designer Rose Revitt achieves with a subtle brilliance that so absorbed in the story the audience barely registers.

Revitt has created a stacked tower of lock boxes, desks, chests and safes that form a pile in the centre of the stage – a nod perhaps to Bunny Christie’s design for Ink who also receives a credit here as Season Framework Designer – which emphasises the money and work themes that open the play. It also gives height and variation to the staging, allowing the three performers to move around the structure to create different scenes, store props and physically drag chests around the forestage to create seating areas, beds and family gatherings that have a visual harmony and connection within the unfolding tale.

This is one of the most haunting versions of A Christmas Carol you are likely to see with plenty of smoke effects to create the smoggy London streets as well as the mystical smoke of ghostly arrivals. The vivid creation of atmosphere is enhanced by Jon Clark’s meaningful lighting design that does much to alter the mood of the piece as Scrooge’s experience takes in the cold and grim reality of the everyday, the genuine fear and intimidating presence of Jacob Marley and his spectral companions that frighten Scrooge into compliance along with the more wistful flights of memory and imagination that help the story to travel between past and future. Clark employs lots of contrasting filters from warm purples, reds and greens in the very Christmassy and celebratory sections to the stark white and grey intensity of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and Scrooge’s doom-laden and intimidating future.

Hytner’s production and the work of the design team exactly capture those almost extreme variations in Dickens’s writing from the spooky ghost story opening that has a genuine chill here to the simplicity and welcome of the Cratchit household and the warmth of Fezziwig’s celebartion and Fred’s Christmas Day party games. Visually the unfolding narrative holds together strongly and Hytner manages those opposite moods of darkness, misery and foreboding with the brightness and lightheartedness of Christmas spirit extremely well and entirely in the service of Scrooge as a character developing from miser to benefactor, and personally rediscovering his subdued humanity.

Sharing the storytelling duties between the three actors creates considerable flexibility in the management of the show, freeing the cast to also adopt the numerous smaller roles as well as creating a dynamism within the production as sound and intonation freely moves around the stage. But what we do have is character consistency, so the actor assuming one of the roles retains it throughout – regardless of gender or age – bringing greater clarity to the multi-narrator device.

Simon Russell Beale tackles his second Scrooge of the season, having voiced the lead in Russell Maliphant’s dance film version which opened on the same weekend. Delivered from the formality and intensity of his Shakespearean persona, Russell Beale has a fantastic time in this production playing excitable maiden aunts, venal shopkeepers and enthused party-goers, all with a quick change of voice and body language or rearrangement of clothing. But it is this more sorrowful Scrooge that stands out, making far earlier and more explicit connections between his current lifestyle and the more human traits of his youth than other versions. Russell Beale offers genuine fear of each of the spirits and no sense of complacency about their similarly unfolding purpose, but primarily a feeling that the visions they reveal and their underlying lessons hit home immediately, that this Scrooge had a heart and the capacity to feel regret, compassion and most especially shame all along.

With Russell Beale shouldering the central role, Ferran and Figueiredo share most of the remaining duties as the four ghosts and Scrooge’s primary acquaintances. They often work in partnership as Mr and Mrs Cratchit, Fred and Clara or the future couple delighted by fiscal relief of the miser’s death, and in each they carefully match their accents to create fast and effective character portraits. Ferran’s talents are perhaps a little under-utilised given her performances in 15 Heroines, Three Sisters and, of course, Summer and Smoke, and there is far less for her to get to grips with here though she is excellent throughout.

To be on stage with actors as reputed as Russell Beale and Ferran and to outshine them both is no mean feat, but it is Figueiredo whose performance you will remember from this production and the absolute joy of watching a selection of wonderful comic characters each with a unique accent. Figueiredo was excellent as Christian in Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac a year ago and he brings the same energy and a versatility to A Christmas Carol leaping between characters and vocal styles with little more than a breath at times, bringing out the hilarity and joviality of Fezziwig, the benevolent wisdom of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the hangdog gravity of Jacob Marley and the life loving openness and acceptance of Fred, each as distinct and memorable as the one before. And with a variety of UK and international accents this production gives a real feeling for the capital city, then as now, as a multicultural melting pot. Figueiredo may be the least widely known member of this cast but his presence is the bridge between the other two that brings Hytner’s production to vivid life.

Filled with a real love of Dickens’s words as well as his characters the Bridge Theatre has found a fresh and exciting way to tell this familiar tale and give Scrooge’s redemption arc a renewed emphasis. Full of scares and laden with Christmas spirit, there may be competitive versions of the tale available this month but this celebration of storytelling is full of festive magic.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Bridge Theatre until 16 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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