A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, adapted by Piers Beckley
Giant Olive Productions
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
Ever since George Sallis and his Giant Olive company took over at this Kentish Town pub theatre they have been nothing if not ambitious and among the several Christmas Carols to choose from this Christmas this must be the most adventurous and surprising. Director Ray Shell has taken on the challenge of telling Dickens's story in its entirely with its many settings all in this small room above a pub with almost no budget and using a cast of 22, which almost outnumbers the audience for there are only a few rows left after most of the venue's stock of chairs has been appropriated to form the set.
At first, with chairs lined against the walls it seems this is going to be an in-the-round production - but those seats aren't for you! When a man who is obviously in charge of them brings on a host of giggling girls who fill the chairs, then on instruction begin to set them into a complex pattern you realise that it has been conceived as a school production, with a couple of boys and probably some teachers to take on major roles.
There is a chain-rattling Marley from Ross Michell, a glittery Christmas Past from Funmi Pearce in black covered in silver platelets and a more traditional holly and bauble well-fed Christmas Present from Amy Puglia who are followed by an extraordinarily en pointe medieval-jester-looking Christmas Future from Barbara Lanik, all pirouettes - a dance of death indeed.
The large cast is used to good effect to back up the ghosts in haunting Scrooge (choreographed by Donna King) and providing sound effects from church bells and chiming clocks to the squeaking of mimed doors and turning locks as well as carols and other musical support. They move the chairs to change location much more in fact than is really needed, though it gives the production a very definite style. All this physical work is disciplined and dramatic but when most of this largely young cast, many making their professional debuts, are called upon to assume an individual character they play it as a giggly schoolgirl would. Is this a directorial decision to make it more like a school production? It makes it difficult to take the characters seriously or care what happens to them. This extends even to the family of Tiny Tim for, though Joe Shefer and Denys Gaskill's Bob and Mrs Cratchit have warmth and gentleness, they are surprisingly one dimensional. However John Hellman as Scrooge's nephew begins to suggest something deeper and making the business men discussing Scrooge's demise into dealers on the floor of the Stock Exchange rooted these one-liners in reality
Edward Kingham, bravely taking over the role of Scrooge less than ten days before they opened due to the illness of Aaron Barshak, pitches in with a full-blooded performance. Much of the time he has little to do other than stand around and watch. Perhaps he pulls out the stops too early but there is a particularly fine moment, when he thinks he may be choking and coughs out a toothpick, when you see his vulnerability. Bafflingly this Scrooge is something of a cross between Fagin and Steptoe.
A Jewish Scrooge? The last thing Christmas is is kosher! There is something going on here for the walls are painted with Jewish and Christian texts, there is a Star of David, an Islamic Crescent, a Cross, and a Hindu Swastika. There are also stencilled lines of numerals - now what are they? Concentration camp reminders or mobile numbers? At one point there is a ritual verse sung in Hebrew? Is this a synagogue funeral? A few moments later a woman prostrates herself. What is going on?
Dickens's Christmas is about eating and drinking and happy fun, rather than about religion, but to use it for some sort of ecumenical statement seems perverse. This is certainly a production that keeps you interested by its directorial ideas, but what exactly are they? To find out you have to have recourse to the programme, not the performance. Apparently the idea is that this all happens in a British school in Jerusalem where other members of the community have been invited to take part in a spirit of friendship. I am all for goodwill, not just at Christmas and especially in the Middle East and of course, goodwill is at the heart of Dickens's message but I still don't quite get it - especially when this Scrooge, rapidly reforming, enunciates Christ-mas as twice syllables as though never before has he realised what the word means.
However, this is a production that is trying to do something different. If it doesn't entirely succeed that clearly did not stop the audience I saw it with enjoying it. Go in the spirit of the season and give it a chance - if you can get a seat. The night I saw it, a few days into the run, it was already packed out.
Run extended until 11th January 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton