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.

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