Chickenshed Theatre, London – until 5 January 2019
Guest reviewer: Melinda Haunton
I’m going to warn you right away: I have absolutely no reviewer chill about this show. I spent my (first) time at Chickenshed getting into the spirit of a huge, diverse, inclusive production from this completely admirable social educational endeavour. I bought raffle tickets. I had interval ice cream for the first time in ages. And I heard about the difference Chickenshed productions make to the young people who participate, some of them overcoming huge personal challenges to do so.
A Christmas Carol with a supporting cast of 200? A Christmas Carol with four alternating casts of 200, involving as many in making Christmas as possible, with the maximum social benefit? I can’t think of anything more in the spirit of Dickens, or of Christmas. By the end, I was a warm, slightly teary, bundle of All The Good Feelings.
So it’s tough to think critically about the play. But this is a serious production and it deserves attention. The familiar bones of Dickens’ tale are given a fresh look. This is a musical version, with a 1930s setting, which gives great New York skyline backdrops and a nice line in jazz. There’s not much of Dickens’ text left, so maybe regard this as a variation on a theme, rather than a literal interpretation. The professional core cast ensures that the plot and the big numbers are driven onwards.
Ashley Driver plays a sturdily loathsome Scrooge through fear and into jollity, convincing all the time. A group of ghosts inhabit the stage throughout Scrooge’s visions; their choreography and movement are particularly effective. And the huge supporting casts are well marshalled. They make a kaleidoscope of young performers, with something to enjoy wherever your gaze lands.
On my visit, it was the Yellow Rota playing, and I imagine the Blue/Green/Red versions each bring a different flavour to the stage. I particularly loved the enormous Cratchit family (lost count at 20), who give great life and happiness. Finn Walters makes a superbly gangling Bob Cratchit in the midst of a sea of offspring, and their lament for Tiny Tim brought out hankies all around the house.
Yes, it’s a little patchy this early in the run, particularly in projection from some of the minor parts who could be hard to hear; they will warm up, I’m sure. To be honest, the 1930s update is a bit fitful. There’s a distinctly 70s tinge to some of the musical numbers and costumes, and I couldn’t see an overwhelming reason why the 30s suit the story. But on the whole, it’s worth a shot. Taking away the twinkling Victoriana underlines that poverty and lousy bosses aren’t things of the past, giving the social commentary some extra edge. And the one fully jazz number, a bring-the-house-down pre-interval song by Christmas Present (Michael Bossisse) was worth a little liberty with the original setting.
From a post-production speech and some other things I heard on the night, things are looking tough for Chickenshed’s future. So go and see this, give them some support, and if you can’t get there in person but think this sounds like an admirable effort, they’re participating in the Big Give too: https://secure.thebiggive.org.uk/projects/view/29558. Go on. It’s (nearly) Christmas.
A Christmas Carol is on at Chickenshed until 5 January: https://www.chickenshed.org.uk/Event/christmas-carol. Tickets from £14