A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens, adapted by Toby Farrow
Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2008)

Production photo

There’s something about Christmas which seems synonymous with Victoriana, from cards graced with idyllic ice-skating scenes to vintage tree baubles. So it seems wholly appropriate that the unofficial patron saint of the Victorian age, Charles Dickens, has given us one of the yuletide’s most popular tales.

A story with a pudding-soft moral at its centre, A Christmas Carol tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who says "Bah Humbug" to Christmas, and tuts at letting his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchett, take a full day off to spend with his wife and child. After a visit from the ghost of his old business partner, followed by the visions produced by three spirits (Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come), Scrooge awakes on the 25th with a spring in his step, vowing to spread goodwill before it is too late.

Sara Fay Marshall’s costume design makes for a picture postcard of Victoriana with the deep muted tones of crimson, blue and brown frock coats and shiny black top hats made almost sepia by a sheen of dusty stage fog. Andy Burden’s in-the-round setting has its most visual fun with the costumes, from the red velvet-cloaked nostalgia of the ghosts of the past, to the bear-coated ghost of the present. Meanwhile, Chris Bianchi’s Scrooge hits the right note of cartoonishness in skinny black trousers, and tailcoat, with the hint of a stoop.

Toby Farrow’s script creates a perfect blend of Dickensian language and modern utterances, and while it is economical in its short scenes, the transitions between them form part of the continuing story, with the putting up of bunting, or the transportation of scenery in a bustling throng. Sometimes Burden has the cast continue their quiet meanderings around the peripheries of the action making for an effective (not to mention attention-sustaining for the little ones) flow as the story ambles along. Simple props, like duvets as hills or wooden blocks held aloft as a church encourage the audience to donate a little of their own imagination into the mix, while modern hints also feature such as the ghost of present’s dark swing musical number.

There are also moments of modern resonance in the story itself. In Scrooge’s vision of Christmas yet to come, a young couple gasp with relief at his death as it means the end of their financial ruin, held in the hands of the creditor. One wonders how long it will take for someone to produce a credit-crunch Christmas Carol, with bonus-laden bankers inhabiting the role of Ebenezer while the Cratchetts queue up outside a Woolies closing down sale.

Liz Purnell’s songs aren’t the catchiest, which is probably a good thing since it means you won’t be unconsciously humming them for hours afterwards, but they are sung with gusto and verve by the six-strong cast, who thoroughly deserved the three curtain calls they received at the production’s preview.

This is a Christmas show which has no amplification, special effects or wheeled in celebrities, and, perhaps most pertinently for the tale’s moral, no large budget, but instead is bursting with fantastic ensemble acting, a brimful of imagination and a cracking feel-good tale.

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester