Monday, December 15, 2014

'A Christmas Carol' at the Old Red Lion, 13th December 2014

With a drag queen downstairs belting out Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner, a tinsel-decked pub filled with the fruity aroma of Christmas pudding and rosy-cheeked customers clinking glasses of mulled wine The Old Red Lion makes for a warm backdrop to Dickens' classic.  I've never actually seen A Christmas Carol staged before (my main exposure to it is of The Muppets, Blackadder and Bill Murray variety), but then this tale is as baked into the British consciousness as the Nativity.

As soon as we enter we're warmly greeted by the mittened and bobble-hatted cast.  At our feet Bob Cratchit (Liam Mansfield) stamps away at an endless heap of documents, above him the thunderous face of Ebenezer Scrooge (Alexander McMorran), quick to scold if he dithers in his work. All too soon mean old Scrooge is being plagued by the spirits.  First the chain-clinking Jacob Marley, and then then procession of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come. 

Considering that we're about to embark on a supernatural journey through time and space the set doesn't look particularly otherworldly.  A Christmas tree has been unceremoniously stuffed into a wheelie bin, boxes of trash lie about the place and every corner is full of junky looking detritus.  The ensemble cast (Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Rhiannon Neads and Cat Gerrard) huddles in tatty winter clothes, keeping a running commentary on events like a street urchin Greek chorus.

As we explore the past, present and future of Scrooge's Christmases the ensemble keep things moving in tick-tock rhythm.  From the clunk of Cratchit's stamp on paper to the tinkling of Scrooge's chain right through to the stomp of feet on wooden board, there's a the sensation that we're peering into a clockwork universe.  Choosing to proceed at such a deliberate pace runs the risk of robbing the material of spontaneity, shackling the performers to the beat.  Fortunately the cast are a uniformly talented bunch, able to improvise at short notice (including coping with Tiny Tim's crutch breaking!) and work with cool, confident precision.

At the centre of all this is McMorran's Scrooge.  At first I was a little wary of a 33 year old actor playing one of fiction's most famous mean old men. Can a relatively young performer really capture this bitterness?  Scrooge has a petrified soul so seeing even the remotest glimmer of youth would threaten believability.  But McMorran deals with this ably, planting early seeds in the character that blossom as his eyes are opened to the worth of charity, empathy and humanity.

In his early, grumpy guise; rejecting charity, talking about "surplus population" and celebrating the existence of the orphanage and workhouse Scrooge comes across as a quintessentially Farage-esque figure, smugly curling his head up his arse.  The performative magic trick is to gradually peel these misanthropic layers away, yet keep the character recognisable.

McMorran succeeds brilliantly.  In his face you see a candle flicker to life as he watches his younger self celebrating with his family.  This is gradually kindled into a fierce fire, making his eventual emergence as a huggable Christmas teddybear entirely believable.  Most importantly, we see the faint vestiges of the old Scrooge in the new one, a continuity of character being preserved right up until the final curtain.

Given the minimalist set and small cast, A Christmas Carol relies a lot on lighting to evoke mood and atmosphere.  There's a wonderful sequence early in the play when Scrooge hunts for the ghosts with a torch.  The stage is dimly lit and the air thick with dry ice, meaning the arc of the torch is clearly defined as it swoops through the air.  The effect as unsettling as it is visually dynamic.  Similar care is taken later on, when the actors are blocked so as to obscure spotlights behind them.  As they move bright shafts of light pierce the fog, as if the sun has risen behind them.  It turns out that this is all courtesy of Matt Leventhall, which makes this the second day in a row I've praised his technical skills.

I guess the ultimate aim of A Christmas Carol is to fill its audience with the festive spirit.  If that's the barometer of success then this production achieved it in spades.  Being jostled down Oxford Street with the leering face of Ben Stiller staring down at you it's all too easy to grow a cynical shell and regard Christmas as an exercise in conspicuous consumption.  But Metal Rabbit Productions dragged me kicking and screaming towards genuine cheeriness. And with Tiny Tim (an excellent Cat Gerrard) happily exclaiming "God bless us, everyone" I actually felt a mote of dust in my eye.

The modesty and reduced scale of the production works in its favour, boiling the story down to its core and relying on the audience's imagination rather than pyrotechnics and glitz. As I left I felt exceedingly festive, and what better recommendation can I give than that? 

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd January.  Tickets £14 (£12 concs) available here.

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