.home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
A Christmas Carol
adapted by John Mortimer
Within three months of
its first publication, Charles Dickens A
Christmas Carol had already been adapted for the stage. By February 1844 it was
running at eight different venues. The dramaturgical possibilities were obviously too many
for theatre managers to resist. The tale could be told as a sentimental Yuletide fable, as
a social polemic, as a cautionary religious-themed parable, or simply played with a mind
for its dramatic possibilities. The clearly drawn characters and straightforward plot had
already burned themselves into the imagination of nineteenth century England, and its
continued representation was inevitable. Dickens himself performed excerpts on stage
during the famous reading tours of his later years (recently dramatized in The Mystery of Charles Dickens).
Not all of the critics liked it, of course, but its detractors were usually likened to the
storys central character. This proved as effective a piece of satire for silencing
voices of dissent as the story itself was for raising voices in joy and anguish. It takes
a humbug indeed to sneer at Mr. Dickens today.
Fortunately there is little reason to sneer at The Gate Theatres
production of the play based upon John Mortimers adaptation. Mortimer seems a
peculiar candidate for adaptation on the face of it, famous primarily for his Rumpole of the Bailey books inspired by his own insights into the legal
profession in Britain. He has a long pedigree in stage and film though, and is best known
in theatre for his play A Voyage Round My Father.
Mortimers task in adapting A Christmas Carol seems to
have been simple enough. The production employs a four-person chorus to serve as
narrators, commentators, and incidental characters. This effectively means that Mortimer
merely had to edit the text and assign dialogue to each of the chorus members, as the
lines spoken by the characters remain largely intact from the source. He did have to keep
an eye to the stresses and rhythms of the story, avoiding the pitfalls of excessive
sentimentality or morbidity. This he has achieved.
The visual drama is provided by direction, design, and performance.
Director Alan Stanford brings his usual patient professionalism to the production, which
has a clean, well-marshaled feel. Despite the relatively large cast, the stage feels
cluttered only when it needs to (during the boisterous street scenes). Entrances and exits
are smartly timed and the blocking, though basic, ensures that there is no confusion as to
where the audiences attention is being directed at any given time.
The stage design by Bruno Schwengl is similarly practical. A cold, bare
backdrop serves as the chilly offices of Scrooge and Marley, the eerily empty bed chamber
of Ebeneezer himself, and as a miscellaneous background to a variety of interior scenes.
At certain key points, sections of the rear wall are lifted to reveal a series of windows
and doors which serve as shop or house fronts, moving the audience either to the interior
or exterior as appropriate. A couple of carefully disguised side entrances allow the
spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (all portrayed by Stephen Brennan) to make
their dramatic appearances. Lighting designer Rupert Murray must also take some credit for
the look of all of this, especially for the smooth transition between the Spirits of
Christmas Present and Future, accomplished by a slow dim which fades the actor in and out
at the rear of center stage while keeping Scrooge and chorus visible at the sides (and the
spirits of Want and Ignorance in the foreground).
Robert OMahoney conveys the appropriate emotions in the role of
Scrooge. Initially stiff and withdrawn both in vocal register and body language, the
performance grows with aspects of terror, wonder, and joy as the story goes on. It is a
difficult part to play given the sheer familiarity of it, but the actor manages to win
smiles both for his curmudgeonly moments and his climactic transformation to benevolent
bonhomie. The chorus, namely Joe Savino, Robert Price, Barbara Brennan, and Stella
Feehily, have the largest amount of stage time apart from OMahoney and Stephen
Brennan. They keep the production moving with their shifts between active and passive
voices, their alternating dominance in the storytelling, and their own sometimes quite
vivid characterizations in minor roles. Barbara Brennan is particularly good as the
venomous housekeeper trading in Scrooges worldly goods after his death.
As expected, A Christmas Carol is fine seasonal entertainment,
complete with a lively song score supervised by David Falconer. It hits both the highs and
lows of Dickens tale of human elevation and deprivation. Younger patrons may be
mildly scared by the supernatural characters, but they should be if the tale is really to
work. The production on the whole provides the expected levels of heartstring-tugging and
wrist-slapping, giving adults pause for thought about their own level of social
responsibility at this time of year. Noting that all of this is very perfunctory from a
theatrical point of view is beside the point under the circumstances. This is a tale which
has lost none of its power to communicate, and it has been clearly and efficiently