It’s Christmas and with that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his perennial tale of redemption and reclamation, is a regular feature. I’ve lost count of the number of stage versions of the Scrooge story which have appeared in London over the last fortnight – the Old Vic, Bridge Theatre and Middle Temple Hall to name but a few.
There’s also been a mash up version with Sherlock Holmes, a deliberately drunken account from Shit Faced Shakespeare and even a Dolly Parton inspired adaptation set in the US Smoky Mountains. I daresay the rest of the country is also having its own “bah humbug” moments nestled in between countless local pantomimes. However, you don’t even have to leave the house if you want to get your fix – just go to the BBC iPlayer. This has both Simon Callow’s one man retelling and The Goes Wrong gang’s versions. These are now joined by the latest iteration, a filmed staged version from last year, produced by Nottingham Playhouse (though recorded at Alexandra Palace) and masterminded by Mark Gatiss. It’s full title is A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story which, if nothing else, distinguishes it from its fellows.
Gatiss, of course, has form with the seasonal ghost story having curated and produced a number of short TV films over the last few years. So who better to produce an adaptation which keeps the playfulness of the original but does not shy away from the social injustice inherent in the text and which, given recent events, seems right of the moment?
The social divide between the haves and the have nots is front and centre – which is just what Dickens himself would have wished. One would naturally assume that Gatiss would play Scrooge himself but that role is left to a lugubrious Nicholas Farrell who charts the miser’s journey from irredeemable villain to the joyful convert with skill and a finely honed trajectory. Gatiss takes on the role of the equally nasty but too late to repent partner in business Jacob Marley.
In a short prologue this version shows Marley very much alive and kicking – until suddenly he isn’t. When he returns as the chain laden ghost seven years later to warn Scrooge of his fate, he brings a full dose of chilling horror in with him. If you know the story (and surely you do) you may be concerned, as was I, that Gatiss will be rather missed after this initial encounter. But never fear, he pops up in one or two other roles (no spoilers for one of them) and it is clear that his influence is felt throughout whether he is on stage or not.
Always stylish director Adam Penfold (artistic supremo at Nottingham) also sees to it that the grit remains in the oyster to ensure that nothing becomes too saccharine or schmaltzy. Bob Cratchit, (who, let’s face it, can be very annoying) is played straight by Edward Harrison and disabled actor Zak Ford-Williams makes for an engaging Tiny Tim despite being of more mature years than might normally be expected. Despite them being subject to many variations on a theme over the years, the ghosts go back to the Dickens’ template and are all the more effective for it; Joni Ayton-Kent is an ethereal Christmas Past and Joe Shire an earthy Christmas Present. I wasn’t sure of the purpose of Christopher Godwin’s Narrator other than to give voice to some of Dickens’ more stinging social criticism but I didn’t see the final twist coming with his character so, rather as in Scrooge’s case, all was forgiven at the end.
The production is fluidly mounted in the cleverly designed filing cabinet dominated set of Paul Wills with the multiple locationed action even taking in the coal mine and lighthouse scenes often cut in most dramatisations. There are some lively dances and co-ordinated movement sequences which please the eye and the ghosts’ arrivals and departures produce the requisite chills while keeping within the Victorian style. There are some bursts of puppetry too though they are not exactly child oriented.
I don’t know whether this is the best version ever of the Dickens story – for all I know it may not even be the best this year – but what is certain is that if you want an account that’s faithful to the spirit (sorry!) of the original but doesn’t let proceedings drag on (it comes in at under two hours without missing much out) then this certainly worth your attention. Perhaps next year some enterprising soul might have a go at one of the other Dickens’ Christmas stories. After all there are four other novellas and a whole raft of short tales to choose from, even if they have never been anywhere near as ubiquitous.