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