Charles Dickens adapted by Olivia Race
Alice Barber and Olivia Race for Front Room Productions
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester
18 December 2017 to 23 December 2017
Audiences are so familiar with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that anyone considering adapting it for the stage has to consider radical measures to keep the material fresh. Olivia Race, who adapted, directed and co-produced the play, has devised a startlingly different approach to retain audience interest.
Race stages the play as a promenade/immersive production. The audience is split into two groups and follows a cast member who is either ringing a bell or holding a lantern to a part of the venue where a scene is played out before returning to the main performance area to join the other group. This means that the audience does not get to see every scene in the play - you either see the Ghost of Christmas Past take Scrooge back to his childhood or to his final meeting with his old love, Belle. But really the scenes that are missed do not matter all that much as the adaptation catches the essential elements of the story and there is no danger of anyone unfamiliar with the tale losing the plot.
In Manchester there is, however, a sense of compromise to the promenade aspect of the play. The advance instructions issued by the producers suggest that the play was intended to be staged in a large venue – a market is mentioned. One can imagine how leading an audience through such an environment would offer the opportunity for a few scares with characters emerging unexpectedly from around corners. In the more cramped confines of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation the audience simply moves from one room to another so the promenading feels more contrived than natural.
The immersive aspect, however, is an undeniable success largely due to a very enthusiastic cast who try every trick in the book to give the impression that the audience are guests at a boisterous Christmas party. Patrons may find themselves being named as a character and invited to join the cast or, when visiting the Cratchit household, pressed into cleaning spuds and stirring gravy. It is a style that lends itself to a degree of self-indulgence and sometimes the cast nudge towards camp. Yet when it works the immersive approach is intoxicating. One only gets out of immersive theatre what one is prepared to put in but even the most reluctant participant will be won over by the wonderfully chaotic scene in which pretty much everyone attending dances ‘Strip the Willow’. It is a comic highlight even if it does leave you breathless.
Immersive theatre does not lend itself to subtlety; as well as the occasional camp moment the production also features live music that compels the cast to speak with raised voices. Performances have, therefore, to be large and loud with Claire-Marie Seddon a surprisingly judgemental stone-faced Ghost of Christmas Past while Katie Tranter is a coquettish Ghost of Christmas Present. Mick Liversidge brings a nasty sense that Scrooge is not just bitter at the way his life has turned out but genuinely resents those who do not share his sour viewpoint and seems more comfortable showing the character’s repentance.
Front Room Productions offer a highly entertaining version of a classic story that might be even better in a more suitable venue.
Reviewer: David Cunningham