A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens, adapted by David Holman
Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford
(2010)

A Christmas Carol production photo

For its first Christmas on the road, Manchester's Library Theatre Company has fallen back on an old favourite, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, from the same production team (director, designer, composer, lighting designer and sound designer) that created last Christmas's wonderful production of Grimm Tales by Tim Supple and Carol Ann Duffy.

There can't be many people who don't know the story already; Holman's adaptation stays faithfully to it including many whole passages of Dickens's own witty dialogue mixed with some darker, more lyrical speeches from Holman's own pen that emphasise the dreadful social conditions of the people surrounding Scrooge on the streets of London.

The audience enters to be confronted with a strikingly-beautiful stage picture from designer Gary McCann backed by a huge, slatted wooden wall with projected snow at the windows and two large staircases to doors on either side, all beautifully lit by lighting designer James Whiteside with light shining out through the cracks between the planks caught in a subtle haze. There is a large pair of sliding doors in the centre of this wall through which large items such as Scrooge's bed can appear and to reveal a projection screen for some animated scenery. Onto this comes the whole cast singing some very complex harmonies in an impressive opening number.

However there are many problems with the production. Director Rachel O'Riordan achieved a beautiful unity of style with last year's Grimm Tales that took in the design, music, acting and everything, but this production fails to gel together coherently. The staircases look beautiful but make for some awkward entrances and poor lines of sight between characters, or at least it looks that way from an end seat near the front of the auditorium. The projections are interesting but seem apart from the stage action and not integrated with it. Conor Mitchell's music sets the atmosphere and rearranges Christmas carols in clever and complex ways, but after a while it would be nice to hear a carol sung straight in a way we can recognise.

At the centre of the production, of course, is the character of Scrooge, played by David Beames in such a slow and hesitant way that there are times when he looks as though he has forgotten what he is doing. The pace is therefore very slow and flat most of the time when he is on stage, and much of the humour in Dickens's lines is lost. There are two scenes where he flies, courtesy of the ghosts, but he just hangs in the air swinging gently like washing on a line delivering, in one case, a very long, slow description of action that we can't see.

The ghosts are a curious bunch. The Ghost of Christmas Past was written by Dickens to be a child, but here it is played by Abigail McGibbon as a jolly woman, whereas the jolly, Santa-ish Ghost of Christmas Present has become, as played by Kath Burlinson, a rather flirty woman in a red dress covered, for some reason, in bruises. However the final Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come looks much more as we would expect, portrayed as a beautifully-designed but eerie giant puppet with skeletal limbs and ragged, grey robes.

There are some good performances from the company. Jack Lord is superb as Bob Cratchit with a nice performance from Abigail McGibbon as his wife, Claude Close is a jolly Mr Fezziwig and Lisa Kerr creates some nice, sympathetic characters. At the reviewed performance, Tiny Tim was played by the very cute little Oliver Hughes, who lit up the stage with his infectious smile.

However as a whole, the show looks and sounds wonderful but the jumble of ideas doesn't hang together to make a coherent piece of theatre, which is very disappointing after the great show made by the same team last year.

Running to 8 January 2011

Reviewer: David Chadderton