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Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol

Neil Bartlett
Southwark Playhouse
(2009)

Publicity photo

This is a promenade production that takes its audience through the cold and sometimes dripping vaults beneath the railway at London Bridge - you are warned to wrap up well. Appropriately it brings out the bleak side of the familiar Christmas tale but shows Scrooge beginning his change of heart quite early in his nocturnal adventures than one might remember.

The audience is taken first into the office of Scrooge and Marley, where some find themselves immediately employed at high desks, dipping quills in inkwells to make entries in ledgers and add up figures, alongside clerk Bob Cratchit (Steve Hansell) and subjected directly to the stern gaze of David Fielder's harsh-voiced Scrooge. The whole office overhears Scrooge refuse when his nephew Fred (Gary Tushaw) invites him to join his household for Christmas. 'Scratch, scratch' we hear from the surrounding performers who, as well as Fielder and an ensemble of eight, include a large community cast of local people. 'Tick, tick' they mutter as time slowly passes until the clerks are allowed to leave and Scrooge turns the key in an imaginary lock in the office door: 'Lock, lock,' and himself goes home. Church bells, clock chimes and other effects throughout are provided by the actors who seem always present, like spirits or spectres haunting Scrooge as much as the actual apparitions that he encounters.

We follow Scrooge home, where former partner Jacob Marley (Thomas Padden) is the first apparition, warning of more to come. Seen first as a sudden image from nowhere, he later appears dragging chains or straining in them against those forces that hold him.

A female Ghost of Christmas Past (Louise Collins) mixes smiles with scowls and sends Scrooge's bed trundling away to leave a snow covered path for us to follow back to Scrooge's childhood. Traversing these arched halls we become guests at Mr Fezziwig's when a grown up young Scrooge was on his staff. This is a burst of colour and music in contrast to the stygian world of the older Scrooge. Holding a decorative ribband or joining in the dancing, once again the audience is part of the scene.

The ghost of Christmas Present (Trevor Michael Georges), when he reveals himself, tales Scrooge and us to Fred Scrooge's home and to Christmas dinner with the Cratchits where Mrs Cratchit (a particularly warm performance from Sarah Paul) or one of the children of the family may ask you to take a seat, for the table in their humble home has expanded to accommodate us so that we can join hands to say grace before eating.

Christmas Future, a fighting figure in black with a long bony pointing finger, takes us among brokers and dealers and into a graveyard before we find ourselves back at Scrooge's with a man who now sets out to celebrate Christmas with beneficence.

The somewhat intimidating location helps add to the effectiveness of the supernatural parts of director Ellie Jones's production - but (unlike The Trial, recently at this venue) it doesn't plunge you in the dark; you can see where you are going. Barbara Fuch's design visually suggests the period of the book's publication but, a reminder of present day relevance perhaps, when Scrooge leaves his office he removes a low-voltage electric lamp that has been its logical light source and takes it home to plug into the lamp that lights his bedroom., but this is a production of atmospheres rather than settings, even though you may walk through a cemetery full of tombstones.

There is always a risk, with a peripatetic promenade, that audiences will strike up conversations or lose their involvement as they proceed from location to location but, though the first scenes do move somewhat more slowly, the presence of characters from the story among you and the overall ambience helps make transitions from place to place seem part of the story. Like any adaptation the dramatist has to choose what elements of the story to keep and what theatrically is necessary. I think this will work best with those who know the story, there are lacunae in its telling that might make it harder for others to follow, but that won't stop them enjoying the theatrical experience and getting the gist of it - and anyway it is such a familiar story that most people will know it from various adaptations if not from the original novella.

You do need to dress to allow for a rather cold environment in these vast tunnels and if you wear clothes you can sit on the floor in all the better, if you find yourself at the front for some scenes you can sit on the concrete and make it easier for those behind to get a better view, but be ready to make way for actors or to stand and move on to another location. There is an interval when you can stoke up with warmth and refreshment in the (heated) bar.

Runs until 9th December 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton