A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens adapted by Piers Beckley
Giant Olive Theatre Company
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2010)

A Christmas Carol production photo

Two years ago director Ray Shell and choreographer Donna King mounted this adaptation in a production that was strikingly original and proved a popular success. This is not a straightforward revival of that production, though it explores the same ideas, but a reworking that seems to me to make its points with much greater clarity.

It would be a cliché that it is simply mounted and not really true: though it makes the most of tight fringe budget, it has a hard-working cast of over twenty. The scenery consists only of the black walls of the theatre painted with a star of David, a wish for Peace in Hebrew and a sunset behind a mosque minaret and 20 or so chairs that start off lining the walls and are then arranged to mark out the rooms in which the action happens or stand in for essential furniture or churchyard graves. However the ghosts who present Ebenezer Scrooge with his Christmases Past, Present and Future add colour and there is lively choreography and complex action.

The framing device is this time much more clearly presented: a school in Jerusalem is presenting its own version of the story. In 2008 this seemed partly a way as explaining the occasional inadequacies of inexperienced performers making their stage debuts but that certainly isn't true this time round. This is a strong and talented ensemble company with at its heart Peter Gerald's Scrooge, an old curmudgeon who begins to see the light much earlier in his journey through time than usually seems the case. In the original production he was very much an onlooker, now he has become a participant in the action.

The adaptation retains all the key episodes of Dickens's story but freely tells it from a very contemporary perspective. The scenes are punctuated by a series of familiar carols. As settings reconfigure they are sung in many different languages: their message - and this production's - is not so much about the New Testament story as that wider Christmas message of peace and goodwill, irrespective of religious faith, emphasised by setting it where so many cultures and religions overlap and where peace and goodwill are so sorely needed

As with his production of Oliver Twist last year, Shell eschews the sentimentality in Dickens, though you will probably still have to wipe away a tear for Tiny Tim. He gives us the images that Dickens the crusading journalist might have chosen. Violence breaks out even in the opening sequence and later Scrooge witnesses a scene that echoes the 1914 Christmas Truce along the Western Front, though here given a very contemporary relevance.

The gap between the rich and the poor is at the heart of this story but Scrooge and Marley are hardly a multi-national corporation and there is no attempt to wring out a political message about the economy, though Scrooge's insistence on buying the biggest Turkey might be read as a comment on conspicuous consumption . Rather this is a show full of humour, especially in the witty treatment of the three Christmas Ghosts and it sometimes seems very tongue-in-cheek about the way we celebrate Christmas - there is a very funny sequence that sends up that ubiquitous Christmas ballet The Nutcracker with a corps of clever dancers.

In a hardworking ensemble cast they really all deserve a mention: Ross Pearson's jovial Bob Cratchit, Dimitri Shaw as Scrooge's nephew, Max Warrick's chain-clanking Marley, Michelle Yim's Christmas Past, like a Christmas tree bauble from Bangkok, Becky Pennick's red-robed Christmas Present and Rachel Jacoby's on-point Christmas Future, plus Juliet Lundholm, Caleb Frederick, James Scott, Francine Gardner, Stephanie Hampton, Tori Mangan, Lynne Rodgers, Amy Hamlen, Bracken Bollaan, Maud Arrault, Lucy Hayward, Nicola Hollinshead and Katie Nightingale and Joe Sterling as a Cratchit boy also making an extra contribution on guitar and as musical director.

Your critics see an awful lot of Christmas Carols - and some of them are truly awful. This is one of the best taking a fresh and invigorating approach to telling the well-loved story.

Runs until 15th January 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton