Brighton Year-Round 2019
Steven Adams’ adaptation – he designs set and sound too – is directed by himself alongside Suzanne Heritage and Mimi Goddard with Ella Turk-Thompson’s musical arrangements, and Patti Griffiths’ Dance Choreography. Lighting Design’s by Beverley Grover (Lighting and Sound Operation Glenys Harries-Rees, Mimi Goddard), Stage Manager Stephen Evans, ASM Janet White. The Set Construction and Painting crew are Tom Williams, Patti Griffiths, Mimi Goddard, Rob Punter, Allison Williams, Janet White, Bill Griffiths, Gerry Wicks. Costumes are from Margaret Skeet, Ann Atkins, Laura Johnson, Glenys Stuart. Patti Griffiths supplies wigs. Myles Locke constructed the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Laura Scobie’s Dance Captain.
A Christmas Carol…with Muppets? Amongst a feast of Christmas Carols to see this year I doubt you’ll see anything to approach this one. Steven Adams’ adaptation – he designs set and sound too – is a miracle of compressed magic directed by himself alongside Suzanne Heritage and Mimi Goddard.
Ella Turk-Thompson’s musical arrangements leap onto the stage at the opening and closing of both acts. ‘God rest you merry, gentleman’ brings on the sixteen-strong ensemble fronting the first set with sliding panels. It’s a remarkable panorama of a late-afternoon Georgian cityscape as if seen from a square with falling snow. Lighting design by Beverley Grover brings a speckle of snow too – there’s more physical stuff flaking down at intervals – and with a slide of panels we’re in Ebenezer Scrooge’s dingy interior. The two scriveners’ lecterns stand bleakly in a candled world against shuttered dull mahogany: it’s one of the production’s mainstays.
There’s more though, the yellow-and-white vertically-striped drawing room of Scrooge’s nephew’s interior where dancing explodes in costumes across the stage, as it does with the Fezziwigs in a later sequence. It’s one of the ensemble scenes benefitting on this ultra-tight Tardis stage in Patti Griffiths’ dance choreography.
Other backdrops include one in striking squalor with the moon up where Scrooge encounters two women (the same actors as the well-to-do do-gooders he shoos off earlier) selling what they’ve stripped from his rooms on his death, leaving him literally naked. There’s also video projections of appropriate winter-city scenes with carriages punctuating the action.
And then there’s Scrooge’s bedroom, truckle bed and all. After Liz Gibson’s clear narration – she often cajoles and interrupts – we’re in that bed-capped threadbare world. Leigh Ward’s Scrooge enjoys a magnificent snarl and fleer throughout, with surprising modulations to querulous fear, tremulous tenderness and outright terror.
Ward harrumphs his way through those do-gooders Josie Wicks and Amy Wicks, nephew Fred Cheerily (the ebullient Nick Cousins) and long suffering Bob Cratchit – Neil Turk-Thompson’s flinch-and-fidget portrait of a decent man cowed by circumstance, but most by his employer. And yet warmly forgiving.
It’s there in the warmth of the Cratchit family too, an uproarious set-piece. It’s where the children operate those Muppets – including a Tiny Tim on crutches (operated by Turk-Thompson) – Tom Read Cutting (Peter, an excellent puppeteer and voice), Millie Edinburgh (Mathilda), Rosalind Caldwell (Donald), Laura Scobie (Belinda), and Daisy Durrant (Martha) presided over by Chloe McEwan’s warmly-centred Mrs Cratchit. It’s both enchanting and a contrast to Dickensian caricatured realism elsewhere. It’s clear the directors slot their respective scenes as seamlessly and interlaced as the production’s flow: these innovative scenes though naturally stand out.
The devising relishes in sumptuary and squalor or at least dinginess. So we encounter a brief flash of colour where Cousins and Josie and Amy Wicks enjoy a striped world swung with light, and a return to dinge and dark where another fine projection of an outside townhouse maps an outer door onto the one door in the backdrop. It’s where Scrooge sees Jacob Marley’s face glare out from the door-knocker. Blanched, mobile, it’s a chilling moment.
Inside, Harry Atkinson’s chained Marley clanks on stage-left and in a fine baritonal darkness measures out his warning with a flail of a man cabin’d cribb’d confin’d. Again a strong performance bounces off Ward’s own baritone which notably lightens and softens throughout the play.
Edinburgh returns in her waif of Ghost of Christmas Past conjuring Scrooge Past – Caldwell’s Boy then Read Cutting’s hardening-up youth painfully withdrawing from Durrant’s Belle Fezziwig. Their earlier intimacy’s not shown and it doesn’t quite call forth the painful renunciation of some productions, though the brisk adaptation here doesn’t preclude that. It’s still affecting though.
It’s in vivid contrast to the Fezziwigs’ ball, Scrooge’s cheery old employer, Mr Fezziwig (Cousins), Tess Gill’s Mrs Fezziwig, Scobie as Dora, with Josie and Amy Wicks, McEwan and Caldwell as guests and Stephen Evans an Janet White (both active elsewhere on the production) as walk-on parts as servants. It’s the swift swirl of stagecraft that impresses, the storytelling neat and occasionally crimped to ensure a show of around 115 minutes with a 15 minute interval.
The first half ends with Gill’s fulsome set-piece as the Ghost of Christmas Present, by far the warmest of the three apparitions, where she’s able to rock Scrooge into self-recognition. It’s the point where ensemble singing erupts to send the audience out.
On their return there’s a spectacular red-and-blue light and dry-ice show as Myles Locke’s construction of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come apparates. It’s an impressive technical feat darkening the show in a variety of scenes. Atkins, Evans and White join both Josie and Amy Wicks as cackling hags stripping Scrooge’s house, and a swirl of other actors like Cousins, Gill, Scobie complete the desolate future projected to Scrooge by his silent interlocutor. Edinburgh’s Want and Caldwell’s Ignorance, particularly the latter, are paraded as potent terrors to drag down the world.
The redemptive moments are fluently handled but particularly Ward’s jigging joyfulness, an exuberance with all those he might have offended and his miraculous, chortling which initially terrifies Cratchit. It’s as touching as it’s exuberantly handled – which I’ve never seen managed to this extent. This production concentrates on Ward’s strong core performance as the physically altered Scrooge. There’s an elision of the nephew’s house scene – Scrooge arrives there to Cheerily’s startled welcome and we’re left to imagine the rest, but it’s not a crucial scene: the essential recognition stands in for it.
This is a sovereign production. There’s stand-out performances: Ward above all, Turk-Thompson, Atkinson, Gill, and very strong smaller ones by for instance McEwan and Edinburgh. Most of all however it’s an exceptional realisation. If Adams is the key mover, there’s some remarkable production work from Heritage, Goddard, Griffiths (Ella) Turk-Thompson, Grover and Locke.
And then there’s those Muppets. They’re enchanting, drawing in children and standing in for Christmas and pathos in ways that amplify our understanding of Dickens’ message. Each actor tasked with their incarnation is particularly expressive. It’s hard to think he’d have been anything than delighted with the innovation. You’ll not see a better Christmas Carol this Christmas, and it remains the most original, potent and uplifting I’ve ever seen.