A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by John Mortimer

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
Share This:

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

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 story’s 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 Theatre’s production of the play based upon John Mortimer’s 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.

Mortimer’s 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 audience’s 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 O’Mahoney 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 O’Mahoney 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 Scrooge’s 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 re-told.

christmascarolscrooge.jpg (18679 bytes)

Mala is a smart, insightful play about the slow motion losses we experience as our parents age. We go from...
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ is not a play or even a musical – it’s a show. There’s no plot or story...
The brilliant musical talent Dave Malloy (“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”) realized a few years ago that...
Search CultureVulture