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A Christmas Carol

Will Steale, adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens
4M CiC and Theatre Space North East
The Great Hall, The Castle Keep, Newcastle
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A Christmas Carol has become almost as essential a part of a traditional Christmas as panto, Christmas trees, turkey and mince pies. In the North East alone this Christmas season there are four very different productions: a one-man production at The Phoenix in Blyth; Northern Stage’s large-scale, all-singing, all-dancing version in Newcastle; The Pantaloons’ show at Arts Centre Washington, complete with audience participation, and this one, in the very cold Great Hall of the Castle Keep in Newcastle.

It’s medieval (completed in 1178) and a scheduled Ancient Monument so there’s no central or any other sort of heating but fortunately the temperature outside was above freezing and the many layers the audience had wrapped themselves in (a couple next to me had even brought blankets) proved sufficient to keep us in reasonable “comfort”.

But the cold does add to the impact as we share (to an extent) rather than imagine what the poor suffered and the costume design (Rebecca Robinson) reinforces this, all black, white, grey and deep blue with the only brighter colours being the red and green of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the maroon top hat worn by Fred, Scrooge’s nephew.

What makes this production different is the mixture of text (all Dickens), physical theatre and puppetry. Sean Kenny plays Scrooge and the ensemble—Chloe Flockart, Matt Wood, Lawrence Neale, Matthew Nicholson and Calum Bruce—play quite a few roles between them and operate the puppets, which were created by 4M’s Will Steale, Joana Feijó and Lawrence Neale. Neale plays Fred, Wood Bob Cratchit and Flockhart all of the female roles.

The set consists of two benches which form, inter alia, the desk in Scrooge’s counting house, his bed and his gravestone. They are moved from scene to scene by the ensemble—not in a stage crew manner but choreographed in such a way as to prepare us for the emotional content of the scene to come. Neale, for example, has a sparkle of mischievous glee in his eye at times, suggesting the ensemble’s (or perhaps we should call them the chorus) delight in seeing Scrooge suffer.

The play opens, as the audience comes in, with five figures sitting or lying in attitudes of sadness, even despair. They stand up and move around. Some approach the audience. The man next to me—he with the blanket round his legs—was asked if he had some change for a little food. He hadn’t. “But sir, it’s Christmas.” He was sorry but he hadn’t any. We were in there, in the situation, right from the start!

Scrooge appears; the beggars converge on him; with a loud bellow and threatening gestures with his stick he drives them off and so the story begins. The ensemble fill us in on the background, using Dickens’s own words, and the prelude to the main theme, the lady collecting for charity, the Cratchit family and Scrooge’s nephew’s family, take us through to the arrival of Jacob Marley.

Marley’s Ghost appears. Like his successors Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Be, he’s a puppet, as are Tiny Tim, Want who is so tiny he is barely visible, and the young Scrooge. The latter is a particularly effective idea: a puppet in a conversation about love with Belle Fezziwig makes for uncomfortable viewing, the depth of feeling of the human Belle contrasted with the almost lifeless lust for money of her former fiancé.

There’s very atmospheric original music by Kerrin Tatman, much of it played on the violin and sung by Tamara Kazziha.

The commitment of the whole company is total and they really draw the audience in, whether moving and positioning the benches, passing around items of clothing, operating a puppet or playing an individual role.

Kenny’s Scrooge is stronger than the character is often portrayed, both in physical and vocal terms. He is an imposing figure who clearly enjoys his riches. Unusual yes, but it works, and his descent into fear is the more powerful for that and his conversion the more convincing.

Director Corinne Kilvington has taken an unusual, very different approach to the classic story, bringing home the misery of the poor very effectively.

To have an off-the-wall take on an established classic is always good and this one gives added impact to something which has perhaps become over-familiar.

Peter Lathan