Each year the signs of Christmas seem to be visible earlier and earlier. With forty-two days until the day actually arrives, Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol is one of the more human and beautiful evocations of this time of year, and its magic creeps up on you unawares, like the sleep that steals upon you as a child sitting up in bed determined to see Father Christmas. Directed by Resident Director Anne-Louise Sarks, a self-confessed Christmas tragic, this Christmas Carol – drawn from the Dickens novel – is imbued with that Belvoirian brand of stage magic which previously infused Peter Pan and The Book of Everything.
On a steeply raked set which climbs into the back corner, Scrooge’s world is very much a downward slide into misery and bah humbug. But as Scrooge is visited in turn by the three Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet-To-Come, he is deeply affected by his unwarranted coldness and apathy to humanity and consequently changes his ways. Michael Hankin’s set is a honeycomb of trapdoors and moving platforms, age-old devices which have lost none of their breathtaking ingenuity and simplicity, and are used to tremendous effect here. Used in conjunction with simple items of set – chairs, desks, tables, benches – brought on as required, and the ever-inventive Mel Page’s costumes – a seamless (albeit anachronistic) melange of styles from cod-Victorian right through to the present day – there is never a moment short of humble theatrical verve which seems drawn from a childlike sense of wonder, creativity and memory.
While other retellings of Dickens’ story have focused on the potential for songs or time-travel, this Carol focuses on the warmth of humanity, and Sarks’ cast are all wonderful. It is hard not to be moved by the generosity and kindness in the acting, the good-natured playing which seems to sit at the core of each of the characters, of Sarks’ production. Robert Menzies’ Scrooge is suitably miserable, uttering ‘bah humbug’ to perfection, but underneath his potentially-pathological dislike of people is a little boy who has lost what mattered to him and has grown immeasurably cold as a result; you really do feel his pain when the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come shows him the Cratchit family’s misery and their strength in the face of it all. Though his inevitable transformation, his thawing out if you will, is slightly unbelievable, it is balanced out by the generosity in the ensemble around him. Peter Carroll makes a suitably spooky Marley’s ghost, but also a delightfully youthful grandfather Cratchit. Ivan Donato’s Ghost of Christmas Past is a grease-paint-faced old vaudeville clown, and there’s a bleakness to his visions which Scrooge does well to mark, but there is also a determined resilience to his other characters which is humbling. Eden Falk’s gangly Fred, clad in a red Christmas sweater, is as forgiving as he is determined to see the best in people, while Kate Box’s Ghost of Christmas Present, covered in gold tinsel, is a vision to behold, mischievous and compassionate to boot, but also with a hard edge which Scrooge cannot help but provoke.
It is the Cratchit family, however, who form such a beautiful evocation of the Dickensian original and Sarks’ own vision of Christmas. They could be long-lost cousins to the Lambs of Cloudstreet, such is their earthiness, humbleness and simplicity; their meagre existence more than made up for with a spiritual and selfless bigness. Gathered around their small wooden table laden with Christmas dinner, you cannot help but want to join them. Each actor here seems to become themselves – no acting is required during these moments. Ursula Yovich’s Mrs Cratchit is welcoming and warm, fussing and proud of her family by turn, but it is never a selfish pride. Steve Rodgers’ Bob Cratchit is perhaps the antithesis of his character in Eight Gigabytes, genuinely warm and compassionate, earnest and sincere, a childish glee in each of his roles here (especially as the Christmas tree). But it is Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim who comes close to stealing the show with her smile, energy and chorus of ‘God bless us, every one.’ And that’s the thing I think Dickens was getting at – no one is better or worse off than anyone else; the Cratchits’ delight in simple things and their being together is the epitome of what Sarks means when she says “it’s the small and the everyday actions that are the sum of who we are.”
It wouldn’t be Christmas without snow, Christmas sweaters, or carols, and Sarks delivers on every front. Stefan Gregory’s vocal arrangements and simple score and highly effective, and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting is rich, warm and austere as required, cleverly highlighting pockets of memories upon the stage, an astronaut floating through the ether, strings of lights suspended above our heads. It’s a production which draws you into its world with its heart and generosity, its genuine delight in the magic of theatre and the Christmas period and I reckon even the hardest, most cynical hearts would be moved. Sarks directs with gentleness, an imagination bound only by those of her collaborators, and here I think they have all struck upon a veritable stockpile of cheer, goodwill and spirit. It is a production forged in small miracles and moments of simple delight.
It’s a miracle, too, that Sarks and her team managed to create snow in early November, and it is not just limited to the stage either. As characters enter and exit from every entrance possible in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre (much like they did in As You Like It), they are sure to spread the snow around and, in some cases, over as many people in the audience as possible. It is little touches like these, and the moments with the apples and the Cratchits, that make you feel a part of something special, and I dare say it is. As Christmas is now more of an economic absurdity, seemingly blown out of all proportion and meaning, it is heart-warming and mesmerising to see something like this cut to the core of the Christmas period, and remind us of what the season means, what is has meant, what it can mean, what it should mean. And, thanks to Charles Dickens’ one-hundred-and-seventy year old novella, we are reminded of the humanity and warmth in generosity, in goodness and simple acts of kindness, and if we can each feel the heart in this Christmas Carol then perhaps we too can strive to be better people, and not just during this Christmas season.
Theatre playlist: 70. Scrooge, from The Muppets Christmas Carol, Miles Goodwin