Call it a busman’s holiday, but when Liz asked me last year if I would like to go to theatre to see a production of A Christmas Carol as one of my Christmas presents, I leaped at the chance. I never tire of the story and any opportunity to see someone else’s vision of it is a privilege, and is also useful for the ongoing development of my own show as I always notices different ways of presenting a scene, or even just an alternative method of delivering a line.
The production that Liz had chosen was at The Old Vic Theatre which is situated near to the Waterloo railway station just south of the River Thames. The Old Vic is not in the heart of the West End theatre district, but has a reputation for imaginative and innovative programming. I remember being taken to the venue on a school trip to see the British actor Timothy West play Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, which we were studying, and realising that seeing a play in its natural setting rather than grinding through it in an academic environment can teach a student so much.
Saturday January 8 was our performance day, and having dropped the girls off at a friend’s house, we drove to London in thick fog and heavy rain, it was a foul day to be travelling and a slightly tight timescale meant that we couldn’t dawdle. Our matinee was due to commence at 1pm, but we had to present ourselves at the theatre between 12 and 12.30 – in these days of Covid restrictions the management were trying to get blocks of audience seated at different times, to avoid everyone rolling up together at 12.45.
The traffic was heavy and fast moving, although the visibility was low, and the opportunities for catastrophe was high. Inevitably we were soon rolling to a standstill behind a long queue of stationary traffic, and away in the distance the thick cloud was pierced by flashing blue and red lights as a police car blocked the road, presumably to allow for an accident to be cleared. We sat and sat and sat, and the idea of making our time slot became more and more unlikely. Eventually the flashing lights were extinguished and we drove on once more.
We made good time for the rest of the journey and we wound around Buckingham Palace before crossing the river Thames and finding our parking space close to the the theatre (in the absence of any parking garages in the vicinity we had found a parking space available for rent on someone’s driveway and booked a four hour slot).
The rain was still falling as we walked to the theatre and joined the long line waiting to be admitted. In an attempt to expedite the process, one of the front of house staff made her way along the line scanning tickets, so that by the time we got to the door we could walk straight in….or so we thought.
The producers of the show had sent a detailed email the day before entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About Your Visit’, and we had followed the instructions to the letter, however one may have supposed that in an email with such a title, they might have mentioned the need to take a Lateral Flow Test for Covid on the day of the show, rather than putting that instruction in a second email with the title ‘We Are Looking Forward to Your Visit’, which sat, unread, alongside many other similarly titled emails most of which were purely of a promotional nature.
So, when a second box office member walked the line asking to check on everyone’s LFT status Liz and I exchanged a look of horror, for we had no idea! The young man was sympathetic, but unmovable, there would be no entry to the theatre without proof of a negative test in the past few hours. However, he did offer to call his manager who may be able to explain. So we were asked to leave the queue and stand aside until the aforesaid manager appeared. He was equally sympathetic and equally intransigent until he produced a pair of test kits, as if they were Class A drugs, and secretively handed them over to us, suggesting that we find somewhere nearby to carry out a test (‘don’t do it in front of the others, ok?)
We looked helplessly around us, until I noticed a tiny little tent in the square outside the main theatre entrance, which bore the legend: ‘NHS Mobile Testing Centre’ well, that seemed as good a place as any other, so we poked our heads in and asked if we could do our LFTs in the dry, ‘We don’t do Lateral Flow, only PCRs’ we were told, so we had to explain that we had the kits, we didn’t need to be given any, but just required a dry space and as they had no one in their tent at the present, could we huddle under the dripping canvas? They agreed, and we both undertook the least clinical and probably least hygienic tests imaginable. As we waited for the tell-tale line to appear, some more people arrived from the theatre queue, making the same request, but they were turned away. We were lucky.
Fortunately both tests were negative and soon we were back in line and were finally admitted to the theatre with 8 minutes to spare, rather than the 30 that we should have had. Liz had booked amazing tickets in the stalls and we were nestled close to the action, as a temporary circular stage had been built in the centre of the auditorium, meaning that the whole show was performed in the round, with extra seating having been installed on the traditional stage looking out through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium. As the audience gathered, so the cast (with the exception of Mr Scrooge) mingled on the stage, greeting us all with smiles and waves – they were all dressed in long black coats and top hats, but were in no way ‘in character’, they were simply welcoming us to their club, encouraging us to join them. Earlier on in the process they had been handing out mince pies and satsuma oranges, but at that time we had been taking our secret Covid tests, so missed out on the tasty treats. Bah, Humbug!
In the text of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens goes out of his way to make the reader feel as if they have company throughout the story, for example when Scrooge first encounters the Ghost of Christmas Past Dickens says: ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow’. There is the storyteller, close at hand, looking after us.
As an audience we weren’t allowed to feel that the cast were one group and the audience another, in fact we were encouraged to believe that we were ‘really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ and that would be a central theme to the entire performance.
At the centre of the stage a trio of musicians played country folk tunes on a fiddle, an accordion and a whistle, and then suddenly, imperceptibly, the story began, the music became louder, the audience began to clap in time and the cast began to sing, just like that: no announcement, no lowering of house lights, but we were off an running. During the first musical number the entire cast provided accompaniment on hand bells, which sounded sublime.
I wont give a detailed review of the show, for there are many available online, but I want to share our feelings of the adaptation and the performance: it was beautiful, it was intensely moving and it was very very clever. The set and staging was very simple, with little more than four doorframes (one at each compass-point of the stage) which rose up when Scrooge was in the reality of his office or home, but which tilted backwards and laid flat, recessed in the stage, when he was on his supernatural journeys.
Much of the narrative and dialogue was lifted directly from the original, but the writer Jack Thorne had not shrunk away from including his own changes and way of telling the story (for example the three spirits in no way resemble those written by Dickens, but were extremely effective nonetheless). Some scenes were moved around within the plot but settled into their new homes with ease, and the whole journey of Ebenezer was utterly believable and so moving. Much of Scrooge’s torment was shown to arise from his childhood fear of debt, and in these scenes there was a sense of Dickens’ own personality (when Charles was only 12 years old his father had been imprisoned for debt leaving a scar on the great man’s personality that would never heal).
There was a lovely moment when the young Scrooge was seen chatting to his little sister, Fan. Ebenezer had just been released from the lonely torment of his school but was now faced with the anger and abuse of their debt-ridden father. As Fan skipped onto the stage she held a violin in her hand and happily told her brother that she had been told she had talent and if she practiced hard she would become even better. In Dickens’ own childhood he had been sent to work in the squalor of a shoe blacking factory, whilst his little sister was sent to The Royal Academy of Music, where she had won a scholarship. The young Dickens never begrudged her successes and loved her dearly: her name was Fanny, or Fan.
And what of Mr Scrooge himself? The role was played by the very popular actor Stephen Mangan who in recent years has enjoyed a stellar career as a television ‘personality’. Apart from his roles in both comedy and drama series he has also found a niche as a presenter, winning prime-time audiences over with his flashing smile and easy wit. When such personalities are cast in a leading theatrical role it is often to satiate the marketing department, and the performance is little more than an extension of their television persona, but Mangan is so much better than that. We were fortunate to have seen him in a previous theatrical role, and had been super impressed by his performance as Sidney Stratton in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, but his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge moved the bar up many levels. He played Scrooge as an angry man, tormented by his background and his fears. I have said before that I do not like versions of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is angry throughout and refuses to listen to the ghosts, and to some extent Mangan’s performance took this route, but you could tell that beneath the apparent rage the new Scrooge (or, more to the point, the old Scrooge) was struggling to burst forth. And when it DID burst forth, OH! What JOY! The tears of sheer elation poured down our cheeks and I am sure many others too. Suddenly the entire audience became part of the celebrations. The young boy who is sent to fetch the turkey from the poulterer’s shop became three young boys selected from the audience being sent to the bakers, from where hey nervously and proudly carried the largest, wobbliest, fruit jelly you have ever seen onto the stage and received a rousing round of applause and a cheer (we were all cheering and applauding everything by this time!) We all joined Fred’s party and took the feast to the Cratchit’s house where old Ebenezer and Tiny Tim connected in the most moving way imaginable. And it snowed! Throughout the auditorium it snowed on us all.
Among this finale of celebration there were moving scenes too, as Scrooge tried to make his peace with those he had wronged, and the meeting of him with Belle at her house door was a particularly effective moment. There was also a reminder from the three spirits that this was not a magical overnight conversion, but one that had to be continually worked at.
As the show ended, Liz and I were on our feet clapping and cheering loudly, and the entire cast looked deeply moved by the reception. Their emotions would have been heightened by the fact that this was the final day of their run and they now had only one more opportunity to present A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas
OK, I promised not to review it. Too late!
The performance, the experience, stayed with us during the walk back to the car, throughout the journey home and on into the evening. We both felt moved, uplifted and improved by being part of it and it will stay with us for a long time to come
It was a spectacular afternoon of live theatre and I thank the entire ensemble and production team for bringing it to us.
At the end of the show Mr Mangan made a short speech pointing out that Dickens was writing about the huge poverty gap in the 1840s and the sad fact is that the problem still exists, we were encouraged to donate to the FareShare charity, who raise money and campaign to bring food poverty and food waste to an end. It is a superb and appropriate cause and if you are able to support it then please visit the website and give what you can.