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.