Chickenshed Theatre, London – until 5 January 2019
Of all the many, many versions of A Christmas Carol on offer in and around London this festive season, few could be more heartfelt than the one that opened last week at Chickenshed. Charles Dickens’ much-loved message of compassion and generosity is a perfect match for Chickenshed’s own ethos of inclusivity, and presented here by a rotating cast of 200 (per show – 800 in total), the result is both spectacular to watch and joyously festive to experience.
The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Ashley Driver), who sees the error of his ways one Christmas Eve after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, has been updated slightly in Lou Stein’s production to take place not in Victorian London, but in the 1930s. This allows for an element of social commentary on the economic and political climate of the time (and not just of that time: an inadequate welfare system and women demanding equal pay both feature prominently), an attractive art deco style set designed by William Fricker, and an enjoyable jazz-inspired feel to Dave Carey’s original musical numbers. But it also, importantly, drives home the timeless relevance of Dickens’ novel and the lessons it imparts; whatever century we’re in, the need to look out for each other never goes away.
In what Chickenshed regulars will recognise as a typically ambitious Christmas production, Driver confidently and very competently leads the core cast as Scrooge. The success of any production of this story depends on having a central character who the audience both dislikes and believes is capable of change – and this one delivers on both counts; at first every inch the villain, as the story moves on Driver proves he can do fear, bemusement and finally infectious joy just as convincingly.
Alongside him, Finn Walters is a very likeable Bob Cratchit – doting father to a humorously excessive number of children – and Paul Harris a suitably spooky Marley (though not as chilling as Will Laurence’s Ghost of Christmas Future; think Dementors on rollerblades and you’re not far off). In one of many magical moments, Ghost of Christmas Present Michael Bossisse makes an unexpected entrance that delights the audience, while Gemilla Shamruk hits all the right notes – in every sense – as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
What makes Chickenshed’s A Christmas Carol truly unique, though, is the huge supporting cast. Just as everyone who comes to see a show at the theatre receives the warmest of welcomes, there’s a place too at Chickenshed for anyone who wants to perform, and this is reflected in the diversity, enthusiasm and cooperation we see on stage. Despite the daunting numbers of young people involved, everyone is exceptionally well organised, and there’s a real sense of shared purpose from them all, however big or small their role. And while I’m singing Chickenshed’s praises, let’s also mention it’s great to see a show that not only features signing but places it proudly at front and centre of the performance.
This is theatre for everyone, by everyone – and if it doesn’t get your Christmas spirit going, then frankly I suspect nothing will. I generally make it a rule to try and see only one A Christmas Carol per year; I’m glad this is the one I chose for 2018. It might not be as polished as some, but there’s no doubt it’s got the biggest heart (not to mention cast) of them all.
A Christmas Carol is at Chickenshed until 5th January.
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