Gary Stringer reviews Neil Duffield’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens now playing at Derby Theatre.
A Christmas Carol
First published in 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is arguably the second most famous Christmas story. Written in a period of austerity, and capturing the zeitgeist of the mid-Victorian celebration of Christmas, it helped define our modern understanding of the festive season including some of the traditions we have today – even the phrase, “Merry Christmas”. It has been dramatised and adapted countless times across virtually every genre, with its “bah humbug” protagonist inspiring everyone from Anthony Newley to Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart to Marcel Marceau.
Following a successful production in 2014, written by Neil Duffield and directed by Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham, A Christmas Carol returns to haunt Derby once again. This time around, it’s reinvented by director Oliver O’Shea, who has form with the venue, being the associate director on previous productions Hansel and Gretel and Peter Pan. Planning began last Christmas, with O’Shea aiming to incorporate more live music into this production, which has certainly been achieved, with a series of classic carols and rhyming couplets propelling the narrative. Understanding the old adage of “If it ain’t broke”, Oliver still spirits up plenty of surprises, high emotion and genuine scares. Indeed this precautionary tale featuring four supernatural spooks had some of the teenagers in attendance screaming out.
The cast of eight play multiple instruments, and multiple roles, with Gareth Williams a suitably curmudgeonly Scrooge. He does a great job at taking us on Ebenezer’s journey from disbelief and reluctance to sorrow and regret until his final delight at the joy and goodwill of the Christmas message. Aimée Kwan makes an assured professional debut in this production as Belle while James McLean brings a bit of panto into his portrayal of the exuberant Spirit of Christmas Present, in contrast to his brimstone and hellfire Jacob Marley. Together the cast works well to portray well-known characters in interesting ways, across the different time periods of the ghostly visitations. Three teams of local young actors support the main cast in rotation, with the “red team” doing sterling work for this performance.
The staging is dominated by a clockwork sign, complementing the circular stage, both cleverly used as the story twists and turns through the events of Ebenezer’s life, providing sympathy as we share his redemption from his miserly ways. Clever lighting, sound design and some inventive sleight of hand plus musical instruments help conjure up the hauntings – and held the audience in rapt attention. Any fears that the largely teenage audience wouldn’t be distracted from their phones was soon dispelled.
What the dickens would Dickens make of our 21st century, where despite so much progress his twin horrors of “ignorance and want” are still very much evident? Comfort I hope in the message of the season, and this production. As Scrooge and this audience are transported across the seas and mountains, they hear the universal message of goodwill delivered in a swirl of lights and in a multitude of languages, “Merry Christmas” to each and every one.
Running to 4 January 2020.
Read our article on A Christmas Carol around the UK