Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens adapted by Neil Duffield
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
17 November 2017 to 13 January 2018

The last few festive shows at The Octagon Theatre have used the source material as springboards for loose adaptations, going so far as to re-tell the Cinderella legend from the viewpoint of the kitchen mice. Perhaps recognising that some stories are too good to take chances with, Neil Duffield adopts a respectful approach in his adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. There are one or two questionable moments – ‘re-runs’ would not be mentioned in Victorian times and the absence of Dickens’s marvellous opening line is a shock – but this is a fine adaptation.

Music plays a vital part in the play. The cast sing and play Rob Hiley’s arrangements of seasonal songs and carols live on stage. The songs may be traditional but the arrangements are modern and, most importantly, have a sinister, spooky undertone.

The story of A Christmas Carol, with ghosts and magic tricks, lends itself to large scale stage productions. Designer Liz Cooke prefers a more intimate ‘back to basics’ approach. Scrooge travelling with the spirits is achieved with kaleidoscope images on a gauze screen and a platform rising out of the stage. The most effective example of this ‘simple is best’ approach is the casting of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (notably not listed in the programme) where the modest attitude makes a powerful impact.

Director Ben Occhipinti treads a fine line not forgetting that this is a ghost story but ensuring that it is not too scary for youngsters. There is an overall spooky atmosphere but much comes from the use of descriptions lifted out of Dickens; there are no loud bangs or screams and the only aspect that might be seen as supernatural is Scrooge’s nightgown moving by itself. There is a great comic turn from Ruby Ablett and Sue Devaney as a pair of nervous scatter-brained charity workers and Devaney’s interpretation of The Ghost Of Christmas Present as a northern barmaid leading the audience in a sing-along makes for a terrific second Act opener.

Although Occhipinti holds back on the chills, he does not shy away from Dickens’s social message. A group of half a dozen local children make a strong contribution to the production especially when crawling from under the steps as representatives of ignorance and hunger. The Octagon’s willingness to take a chance and allow the youngsters speaking parts rather than just swell crowd scenes plays off handsomely.

The only aspect of the adaptation that might offend purists is the casting of Marc Small as Ebenezer Scrooge. Small seems young for the role and it is hard to accept him as someone who has been turned bitter and insular by the passage of time and an accumulation of life’s disappointments. On the other hand Small’s broad, giddy comic turn is a winner with the children and, after all, they are the target audience for festive shows.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Comments

Comment by Diana Stenson

In popular parlance this is a "pared down" Scrooge - in fact almost "Scroogley".

No hefty 4-poster beds and dark drapes for scarey rumblings. Instead a floor to ceiling gauze curtain  rattles along its circular rail providing a full view for the surround audience - a neat solution for the Ghosts of Christmas Past and impending vision of deceased partner Jacob Marley. He frightens Scrooge somethin 'orrible but not the rest of us.

Marc Small is the traditional meanie Scrooge but manages to transport his role into a truly untraditional hilarious character - too comedic for boos and heckling but plenty of laughs.

The two teams of young actors are a strong support for the main cast without being at all stagey, indeed
quite the opposite and a treat. The accompanying plonkety music, played by actors on fiddle and guitar
was none too festive, perhaps a seasonal trick missed, but one of the brightest sparks of the show, bubbling Sue Devaney, four roles and counting, is a crackling Mrs. Fezziwig, hostess with the mostest at the festive factory Christmas party.

This is not the traditional Victorian Dickens vision but an artful regeneration.

Comment by David Chadderton

Duffield's adaptation is fine, as I think I said when I reviewed it ten years ago at this same theatre; a little verbose in some of the scenes, but that may be the production rather than the script making it seem so—it's difficult to tell. I agree with David that the atmospheric music, all played by the cast, is a strong point; the opening chords even reminded me of the start of Sweeney Todd, albeit without the chilling screech.

Small does look too young, and to compensate he plays Scrooge as a comic stage "old person", stooped and stomping around the stage, which fits with an overall knockabout comic interpretation of the role but makes it difficult for him to get the most out of the more serious, emotional parts.

While this is a ghost story, and not the only one that Dickens wrote, the ghosts were only really meant to scare Scrooge, not the audience, and any chills should come from a realisation of its moral message. The production is all on one level, without the real highs of comedy or the real lows of emotion, and so comes across overall as perfectly okay but overall a little bland.

Oh, and as Di says, the children who performed on press night were wonderfully natural and fitted seamlessly with the professional adult actors.

It's an adaptation that's faithful to Dickens but lacking in the subtlety and variety and a bit of pizzazz that would get the most out of this great Christmas tale.