Of Ghosts and Goodwill: A Christmas Carol

What is it that makes A Christmas Carol so special?

Bound in crimson cloth and gleaming with gilt-edged pages, Charles Dickens’ ghost story was published on 19th December 1843, capturing both the spirit of the age and the revival of the Christmas holiday blooming in England at the time.

A tight tale told with clockwork precision and bubbling wit, this astonishingly crafted Dickensian universe fuels our western festive ideals to this day; coloured lights twinkling through windows, glistening snow-slicked cobbles, sprigs of holly hanging in doorways, families gathered around roaring fires, fluffy snow descending slowly through a crisp winter sky; all wrapped up with generosity, a dash of melancholy and lashings of wide-eyed wonder fit to melt even the coldest of cold hearts.

Craig Fairbairn as Bob Cratchit - centre with ensemble from Newcastle College

Northern Stage’s new take is assuredly the story we know and love, dripping with atmosphere both festive and dreadful, replete with all the trimmings yet spruced up with some brilliantly-judged new touches. Since Director Mark Calvert had previously trod the boards as Bob Cratchit in a past version of A Christmas Carol (at Northern Stage too), he seized the chance to tell the tale his way, saying:

“I felt very strongly that I wanted to do it justice with a production that brings Charles Dickens’ magical story of ghosts and goodwill to life. Very few stories carry the sentiment of Christmas and its message of compassion so well that it’s hard for us to imagine how we ever got by without it.”

deft theatricality renders the show completely magical throughout

Hard indeed, and it is through the seemingly impenetrable hard heart of Ebeneezer Scrooge himself we enter the tale. Conjured through a remarkable turn by Nick Figgis, this is a less wretched creature than the abominable miser painted in the original text, the weary old pinchfist traded in for a blustery, oddly affable curmudgeon primed for a life-changing journey through time and space.

Craig Fairbairn as Young Scrooge and Nick Figgis as Scrooge

The man is nothing without his cadre of spooks. Kicking off proceedings is Scrooge’s dead-as-a-doornail former business partner Marley, gender-swapped and played with wild abandon by a swivel-eyed Rachel Dawson, rattling chains and teeth alike as the cadaverous compère.

William Pennington’s courteous Ghost of Christmas Past strikes an affable note as a gleaming white wraith hoisted atop stilts, scouring Scrooge’s past for glimmers of hope and joy in the man as a boy. Eschewing the Bacchanalian belly-jiggling gluttony employed in previous versions of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Clara Darcy dances a dapper turn as the spirit of the age, offering Ebeneezer a peek behind the curtains at the merriment going on behind his back this Christmas Eve. Played with a traditional bat, the Ghost of Christmas Future is nevertheless an astonishing creation; a ceiling-high faceless and voiceless phantom towering over the audience and the terrible future Scrooge faces should he not change his ways.

moments of sublime eye-dampening majesty

Straddling multiple parts – and backed up by a stunning ensemble – the main cast strike all of the familiar notes while forging a fresh new path, ensconced in the shining production design from Rhys Jarman and Sam Vivash, capturing the cod-Victoriana we’ve come to expect while rebooting the whole affair into the roaring ’20s for a fresh spin on a familiar world.

Composer & Musical Director Dr Hannabiell Sanders - centre with ensemble

Further amplifying the offbeat vibe, Dr. Hannabiell Sanders’ musical direction sees the dust knocked off of old Dickens’ shoulders through a stunning soundtrack employing traditional English carols kicked into touch with jazz, gospel, blues soul and West African drumming, lending the whole affair a knockabout, propulsive vibe that draws from all ends of a vast African-American musical vernacular.

Played in the round, deft theatricality renders the show completely magical throughout; the astonishing cast working seamlessly to evoke moments of sublime eye-dampening majesty, not least a moonlit flight over the rooftops of London.

is there a greater feeling we could reasonably ask for as we depart a play at this time of year?

Throughout the show characters soar right up – even into – the front rows to point visages both ghastly and glorious at the children sitting wrapped up in this spellbinding world. It’s right there that the magic of Christmas Carol plays out in real time; tiny faces lit up at the wonder before them, hearts full of the Christmas about to come, futures full of the promise and opportunity that took Scrooge a lifetime to realise.

Clara Darcy and Nick Figgis in A Christmas Carol at Northern Stage

In the novel, as an increasingly less world-weary Scrooge under supernatural influence bears witness to a gaggle of children playing around with exuberant abandon, Dickens writes wistfully:

“I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.”

In its purest form, that is the precise essence of the tale. While none in the audience can travel back in time to put right what once went wrong – nor are we likely to have the benefit of an array of affable apparations to give us a glimpse into realities past, present and future – we can all of us have the value of our child-like attitudes reaffirmed. Primed to go out into what remains a magical world and transform it through love and goodwill to the fellow beings we share our Earth with, is there a greater feeling we could reasonably ask for as we depart a play at this time of year?

That hopeful feeling is what makes A Christmas Carol so special; a feeling bottled completely in this fantastic retooling of a classic story.

A Christmas Carol is playing at Northern Stage until 31st December 2018.

Leigh Venus

Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage

Photos: Pamela Raith

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