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A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2003)

While I'm not a fan of Christmas shows in general, nor any great admirer of Dickens, I went to see A Christmas Carol, because I make a point of seeing everything on offer at the Lyric Hammersmith. Artistic director Neil Bartlett, who also directed and adapted the text for this show, is one of the most deeply thoughtful and imaginative theatremakers working currently in Britain. With Bartlett in the saddle you can bet that the pony will gallop in style all the way to the finishing post. And I wasn't disappointed; rather I thoroughly enjoyed myself as Bartlett arranged the text (every word of which can be found in Dicken's original tale, as the programme notes point out) to forefront those human qualities, love, compassion, forgiveness, that are being erased from our world in its scrabble for the acquisition of money. This he did in an aptly modest, but visually striking production, which culminates in a profound tableau as Scrooge is confronted with the towering embodiment of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. At this moment Tim Piggott-Smith, as Scrooge, really found his stride and gave an impressive performance as the terrified miser transforming into a joyful 'baby'.

Bartlett is aware that a Christmas show might be the one time in a year when young audiences enter the theatre building and for many it might be their first encounter with live drama. But he never patronises his audiences. There are no silly jokes, no pratfalls, no sequined costumes and tricksy special effects. Young and old are treated as intelligent human beings capable of reflection on some of the fundamental ailments of our creaking capitalist society. This is serious stuff engagingly and lovingly gift-wrapped; a wholesome message that can't be binned along with the Christmas trimmings.

By way of further audience research I asked the opinion of the person in the adjacent seat. The seven-year-old Brooke told me with confident articulacy that what she liked best was 'that everything came from the actors'. She liked the way they moved the sets around themselves and that there was no sound, except 'what the actors could make themselves'. (She also told me she prefers theatre to television.) And she is quite right. This is a wonderful example of ensemble acting, a multicultural cast of eight actors playing all the roles, singing, creating sound effects, with stage configurations invigorated through physicality. In Brechtian fashion, we were reminded that this was a theatrical illusion, allowed to take our pleasure in the power of a theatricality that can reveal truths concerning the present in a tale about the past.

A Christmas Carol runs until 11th January.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher