views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

A Christmas Carol
The Old Red Lion Theatre
13th December 2014


The ensemble of A Christmas Carol

Photography © Anna Söderblom

In December, more than any other month, you need to keep an open mind as a reviewer, in defiance of a natural cynicism. The reason for this is a staggering inability on the part of theatre companies to do anything even beginning to approach original. Pantos. Anti-pantos. The Nativity. A Winter's Tale. And this, A Christmas Carol. God forbid anyone stage a subversive version of Summer Holiday or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Instead, you have thousands of fringe companies clamouring over the same old tropes, trying to put their mark on something that reached its absolute dramatic and creative zenith when a man in a suit decided to populate the tale with felt creatures.

It seems like director Gus Miller and the rest of Metal Rabbit, like everyone else, realise the genius of Brian Henson. Despite having absolutely no anthropomorphic frogs, bears, rats or aliens, it's the closest in tone an atmosphere to A Muppet Christmas Carol as I've ever seen, again, minus the slapstick. Haunting nostalgia is a byword of Dickens' original tale and, like Henson's hit, it's ramped up to eleven here as Scrooge (Alexander McMorran) comes face to face with the man he is and the decisions he must make.

He's aided, as per usual, by the three ghosts - past, present and future - and taken to scenes played out by our ensemble (Cat Gerrard, Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Liam Mansfield and Rhiannon Neads). The group sing, act and on occasion very slightly puppeteer the way through the show with a much-needed fluidity and vim. Our first ghost, a floating lamp, is voiced by all of the group as they take it in turns to move the thing, allowing for a rapid reconfiguration of the scenes. There's not a weak link in the chain.

It's not all misery and spooky goings-on, though. Much of the show's humour stems from McMorran himself. The script, as it stands, cribs from the original book, adds in a few bits and bobs itself and reappropriates many festive rhymes and songs, and it's a considered move that plays to the strengths of an ensemble. But from McMorran's "humbug"s, through to his wide-eyed joy at what could be, and down to his first attempts at pronouncing "Merry Christmas", there's nary a five minute break without a chuckle. This Scrooge breaks down rather quickly, but he's all the more human for it.

Miller does have a knack for the heavy-handed metaphor, with Scrooge first appearing stood on his safe, austere and all-powerful, guarding his money and his emotions. His cash is clanking chains around him, burdening and trapping. When he's learned the error of his ways, these chains transform into tinsel, bringing joy to those around him. It's undeniably as cheesy as a mouse's Christmas stocking yet as the audience gets so wrapped up in Scrooge's transformation, it carries us along. Christmas is a time for a distinctly gaudy lack of subtelty after all.

But when it's not so ostentatious, it also sings. Matt Leventhall's lighting is the chief cause of the eerie aura, whether it comes from one or two precisely placed torches and a smoke machine or splitting Scrooge in blue and yellow beams, signifying the chance of a turning point, it creates a vital, chilly ambiance.

Another mainstay of Christmas - granted usually on TV more than anywhere else - is the ghost story. Last year we had Mark Gatiss' Tractate Middoth. This year, Channel 5 are going to have a go with The Haunting of Radcliffe House. But if you're a sane human being and realise Channel 5 have never produced anything of worth, you might be afraid you won't be spooked this season. Metal Rabbit have the solution with a rather elegant, approachable and unique take. Cynicism dispersed, God bless us, everyone!

A Christmas Carol opened on 11th December 2014 and runs until 3rd January 2015 at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)

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