Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol (Old Red Lion)

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol is not only one of his best-loved stories, it's even credited with forming much of the modern idea of how Christmas should be celebrated. The story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Alexander McMorran,) visited on Christmas Eve by a series of ghosts who teach him how to save his soul by embracing the spirit of the season, is one most people will have come across a number of times. So Metal Rabbit's production managing to make it feel fresh and new is quite an achievement. An early indicator that this isn't your usual family fare is in the show's scheduling: Playing at the Old Red Lion after the main show Charming, a 9:30pm start time clearly isn't aimed at getting a big kiddie audience in. Instead this version reveals A Christmas Carol as an all-too-contemporary story by stripping it back to its original political message.

Neil Bartlett's stage adaptation sticks to Dickens' own words, but his editing choices focus not on picture-postcard imagery but on the message that Christmas should stand for the better-off helping those in greater need. Gus Miller's choice to strip the story of Victoriana and present it in modern dress helps reinforce the fact that Scrooge's rants, that the poor deserve their fate and should be shoved out of the way into workhouses, are barely distinguishable from statements made on a regular basis by modern politicians.

Cutesy it may not be, but this Christmas Carol is far from lacking in charm. McMorran is surrounded by an ensemble (Cat Gerrard, Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Liam Mansfield, Rhiannon Neads) who take on all the other human roles as well as turning into an eerie chorus to represent the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. Their creepy acapella carol singing combined with Matt Leventhall's restrained lighting (one scene sees Scrooge searching for ghosts with just the torchlight breaking the gloom) makes for a hugely atmospheric effect, and helps build to what I found the most moving moment, of Scrooge facing the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come with the most fear, but also with the determination that what he's about to see is for his own good. As so often happens, stripping the story of a century's worth of baggage and treating it as if they've never heard it before leads to the company revealing it as something fresh and relevant. Despite the late-night slot this isn't an "adult" Christmas Carol, but it is a grown-up one.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett, is booking until the 3rd of January at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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