Tuesday 11 January 2022

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Alexandra Palace 2021-2)


A Christmas Carol is one of my absolute favourite stories of all time, and has had dozens, maybe hundreds of adaptations for audio, stage and screen over the centuries. Each version makes its own changes, some more faithful than others, and each focuses on a different aspect of the original.

One aspect that rarely gets enough focus, in my opinion, is the horror of the story. A Christmas Carol is, after all, first and foremost a ghost story, and Scrooge is terrified for much of it. Thankfully, if unsurprisingly, Mark Gatiss is of the same opinion, and his new stage adaptation of the classic ramps up the spookiness.

Suz and I managed to see this almost as late as we possibly could. First it was delayed by a year due to Covid, but had it not been we might not have had the chance to see it at all. We received the tickets as a Christmas gift from my dad but were away most of the festive season, we couldn't see it until January 8th, the last Saturday of its run at Alexandra Palace and the penultimate performance. Fortunately, it was a Christmassy enough production to get us feeling festive all over again.

Ally Pally is the perfect place to hold the play. The restored theatre in the BBC's old flagship building is a wonderful venue for a Victorian play, suitably atmospheric. We were also lucky to get front row stalls, and although our seats were actually missing when we arrived, they were some of the best in the house once they were returned to their correct location. It's not surprising to see Gatiss tackle A Christmas Carol, after multiple adaptations of Victorian classics including Sherlock and Dracula, sundry Christmas ghost stories for the BBC and, of course, one of my favourite episodes of modern Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead,” which saw Dickens himself beset by extraterrestrial ghosts on Christmas Eve. I wouldn't be at all surpised to learn that he chose the venue specifically as well, after he had the Doctor scale the transmission tower at Ally Pally in the following season's “The Idiot's Lantern.” But I digress.

Anyone else adapting the story and starring in it would cast themselves as Scrooge himself, but Gatiss instead plays Jacob Marley, who was, as we all know, dead to begin with. Except in this version he isn't, in fact, thanks to a prologue scene in which Scrooge and Marley enjoy a jolly game of humbug one-up-manship, one Christmas Eve before Marley conks it at his desk. The book's biting sense of humour is present throughout, not least Scrooge quickly extinguishing Marley's candle noting “Waste not, want not.”

Nicholas Farrell of The Crown and Chariots of Fire makes an excellent Scrooge, decked out in ragged and archaic dress even by the standards of 1843. He's as cruel and miserly as they come to begin with, but there's always an undercurrent of humour that makes his gentler, earlier self, and his new beginnings, believably hidden beneath. It's not long before the phantoms make themselves known, with Gatiss manifesting a flamboyant and undulating Marley to deliver upon Scrooge his warning. Elements of the story that are so often often forgotten are included in this production, including the parade of spirits that sweep Marley away. The various ghosts of the production are given shape by a brilliant mixture of techniques: holography, puppetry, lighting trick and remotely-operated props. As is the tradition, most of the actors take on multiple roles, with Gatiss appearing as sundry grotesques including Scrooge's schoolmaster and even the Ghost of Christmas Future, revealed as Marley once more beneath the cowl.

Before this, of course, we get the two other main festive spirits. Christmas Past, so often visualised as a young girl or occasionally an old man, is in the original story a fluid, complex being manifesting at all ages and genders simultaneously. Such a good move then, to cast the charismatic non-binary actor Jo Eaton-Kent (recently seen in The Watch and probably the best thing in it), as comfortable playing cockney butchers and sailors as they are a genderless spirit. Towering over Scrooge and as threatening as they are angelic, the Ghost of Christmas Past dominates their scenes even as we see Scrooge's past brought to life vividly. The set, spartan but beautifully crafted, shifts to accommodate the changing times and places.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is portrayed by Joe Shire, who you may recognise from Witness for the Prosecution or heard in a number of Big Finish's audioplays. For integrity's sake I have to say, I do know Joe a little, and so was particularly looking forward to seeing him in the role. He is perfect as Christmas Present, balancing the ghost's jolly persona with his underlying anger and judgment. Another rarely included aspect, the lesser ghosts of Want and Ignorance, are manifested under his robe, by way of two creepy puppets operated by the youngest members of the cast. As well as the ghost, Joe plays the ebulliant Fezziwig, leading a raucous festive dance, along with various other parts of great range.

As perfectly realised as the ghosts are, the whole cast is excellent and make every scene captivating. Edward Harrison of Wolf Hall is a charming Bob Cratchit, with Sarah Ridgeway almost stealing the scene as Mrs Cratchit among other roles. James Beckway is a forthright and cheerful nephew Fred, as well as portraying the younger Scrooge, the up-and-coming businessman. Zak Ford-Williams plays several roles as well, including Tiny Tim and the younger Marley, impressively channelling the optimism of the former and the grasping greed of the latter with equal ease. The great Christopher Godwin (Amadeus) acts as narrator, bringing essential parts of Dickens' prose to life, and the eventual reveal of his actual identity is a beautiful touch.

Heartwarming and chilling in equal measure, this was one of the best adaptations of the story I have been fortunate enough to see.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

WHO REVIEW: Eve of the Daleks


Precisely one year after “Revolution of the Daleks,” we get yet another Dalek episode. Are we at overkill yet? The Daleks were nearly done to death under Moffat and Davies, and then we've had a Dalek special every New Year's Day since 2019 under Chibnall (saving 2020, where we had the first episode of series twelve with the Master instead). While it's fair to say we're now at the end of a trilogy, we're seeing the Daleks far too often. Once, maybe twice per Doctor would probably do, since they're just about the only villain each Doctor has to face in order to really count. Thankfully the Daleks were kept at a minimum in Flux, being there primarily to act as antimatter fodder for the Doctor.

All that being said... “Eve of the Daleks” is a cracking episode, easily the most enjoyable special of this era. While they have a particular reason for being there, this isn't an episode about the Daleks. They're simply an easy and recognisable monster to use, requiring little explanation. This isn't a bad thing; this episode rattles along beautifully and while the Daleks could feasibly be swapped out for the Cybermen, Sontarans or Voord, they work very well in the context of the episode. They're not taken too seriously, but after all this overuse, that's probably for the best. They're relentless enough and gloating enough to be menacing, but silly enough to keep this whole adventure light-hearted.

Which is the best way to take it, after all. While it's not the same as having a Christmas special, the New Year's specials have been entertaining, but this is the first one to feel festive. It's actually about New Year's celebrations (the only time since the TV Movie, set primarily on New Year's Eve 1999 but which came out in the summer of '96). An episode in which time counts down to midnight, when events will come to a head meaning life or death is one thing. An episode in which time is constantly counting down to midnight, resetting each time and repeating the nightmare over and over, that's something else. I do love a time loop episode, but by its nature there's a serious risk it cane become repetitive and thus boring. In spite of being virtually a bottle episode, with a limited cast and very limited, low budget location, the episode remains fun, exciting and surprising throughout.

A lot of this is down to the guest cast, who really do carry the episode through much of its runtime. Aisling Bea is by far the stronger of the two, making Sarah, the unlikely proprietor of Elf Storage (surely a holdover from a time when this was planned for Christmas?) a fully fledged character in her first scene. Charming, put-upon and not particularly nice, Sarah is a likeable but deeply flawed person who becomes more selfless, open and accepting with each iteration of the loop. Adjani Salmon is almost as good as Nick, and in fairness he has the harder job. Nick is written as a deliberately strange and off-putting character, and while he's clearly the nicer, more good-hearted of the two, his oddness is designed to be alienating for Sarah and so it comes close to being so for the viewer. It's down to Salmon that Nick is able to become a three-dimensional and loveable oddity, a “weirdo with a good heart.” He's in love with Sarah – and who wouldn't be in love with Aisling Bea? - but his actions come perilously close to creepiness, which at least he recognises. The script gets away with it on the same sort of knowing good will as most absurdly-plotted romcoms, and by the charm of the cast.

The regulars get some of their best material too. Whittaker has to less of the breathless exposition this time, even though this episode is breathless by its nature and requires a fair bit of explaining. I'm really enjoying the more unlikeable side to the Thirteenth Doctor's character that we've seen in recent episodes, and that comes to the fore here: her short temper, her need to be obeyed when the stakes are high, and her apparent emotional illiteracy. It's an interesting and refreshing choice for the first female Doctor, who we might have expected to be more emotionally aware than her predecessors, but the suggestion in this episode is that she's more aware than she lets on. It's an interesting side to the character that deserves more exploration.

Faring very well is Mandip Gill as Yaz, who shoulders a number of the more emotive scenes. Her brief but understandable anger at the Doctor for abandoning her time and again is well-played, but where she really stands out is in the scene where she accepts her feelings for the Doctor. Her gradually admittance to Dan, and to herself, is beautifully played. It's possible this was all planned from the start, but more likely, Chibnall has responded to the chemistry between the two actors and the relentless shipping by fans. Either way, it's a promising development for the two characters, given that it's actually been given time to develop rather than being forced in. Combined with the personal drama of someone coming to terms with their sexuality, it's strong, effective material. While it's unlikely that Yaz will stay on to travel with the Fourteenth Doctor – Davies likely wanting a clean slate when he takes over – it would be interesting to see how the character reacts to a regeneration.

Bishop doesn't get so much strong material, with Dan mostly being the comic relief, something he is obviously suited to. However, his scenes connecting with Yaz and confronting the Doctor are beautifully played, and his moment of bravery against the Dalek is a nice one. His lighter style suits this episode perhaps better than it did the heavier stuff in Flux. A moment, please, to applaud Pauline McLynn, for making the most of a very limited role as Sarah's mum and somehow stealing scenes from the other end of a smartphone.

Plotwise, the episode is slim, but it doesn't need to be hugely complex stuff for a festive one-off. While the story takes some explaining, as noted, Chibnall assumes that viewers are savvy enough to grasp the idea of a time loop from previous sci-fi and fantasy adventures and hit the ground running. (Dan referencing Groundhog Day helps for anyone lagging behind.) The idea to have the loop shorten by a minute each iteration is a clever one, adding an extra element of danger to the concept. While it's true the plot doesn't quite hold together logistically – when do these kinds of stories, really? - it's enough to swallow on the vital first viewing. Wisely, the usual part of a time loop story, where the characters slowly become aware of the loop, is almost completely skipped over. The characters all understand what's happening to them very quickly, which makes the episode far pacier than it might otherwise have been. While it's slightly harder to accept that they wouldn't be a bit more traumatised by being painfully killed by Daleks over and over, it's just about believable that Sarah and Nick would accept the nature of their predicament given the evidence of their own senses.

It's also gratifying to see the Doctor having to face up to her actions in Flux. While there's still a lot of explaining to be done, not least about the state of the wider universe, her actions against the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans clearly still happened, and the few remaining Daleks are now out for blood. Not that they've ever needed an excuse to hunt the Doctor down before, but their anger against her is palpable and, frankly, understandable. Try as she might to blame it on the Sontarans, she wiped out three races without a second thought, and there's no other way to see it. As ever, Nick Briggs makes the Daleks sound powerfully intimidating, even as they bitch and complain (and having the Dalek state “I am not Nick!” is funny on several levels – we were shouting “Yes you are!”) The tweaked design of the executioner Daleks is rather nice as well. A direct blast from a Dalek ray is one of the few things that can kill a Time Lord outright, and the rapid-fire machine gun style looks like a good way to ensure it, where it not for a damaged TARDIS taking matters into its own hands by recycling time. We've already seen the TARDIS reset during the events of Flux – a consequence of rewrites not lining up? - but it's a strong enough reason to put the characters in this situation. It's a bit of a pity this wasn't used as an opportunity to redesign the TARDIS interior altogether though, rather than a minor rejig.

Altogether, a solid, very enjoyable bit of fun for the season. Let's give the Daleks a little rest now, eh? Until the next Doctor is well-established at least. We've got the Sea Devils to look forward to next, and they've not been on the screen since 1984. Far more deserving (and don't they look lovely?)