Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: 'A Christmas Carol' at Above the Arts Theatre, 14th December 2016


I'm a known sucker for theatre that comes with a decent meal. The way I figure it, even if the play is soul-crushingly terrible at least I'll walk out of there with a full stomach. With that in mind, I want to give you a cast iron guarantee I'm giving Flanagan Productions' A Christmas Carol (which comes with a two course Christmas dinner) a great review not just because the food was downright delicious.

The upstairs performance space of the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden has become an austere Victorian parlour. Within it, curled over a ledger, sits the emotionally dessicated, miserable hunk of humanity known as Ebenezer Scrooge (Al Barclay). An entire wall is taken up with the names of his debtors; Scrooge squatting in the centre of a spider's web of supplication  

This dead atmosphere is livened up by the arrival of the ghostly Jacob Marley (Jack Whitam). He explains to us that we're to be the spirits that breathe the Christmas spirit into this curmudgeon's heart. I confess I felt a certain disappointment when I realised this was going to be a two man show - one of my favourite things about seeing a production of A Christmas Carol is seeing how companies approach the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

But any misgivings here are quickly and efficiently shuffled away courtesy of a production that's as heartwarming as any Christmas production I've seen. Sure, Alexander Wright's adaptation takes some liberties with Dickens', cutting, pasting and splicing the text up into something that's more A Christmas Carol flavoured than a direct translation of the text. That said, the show positively pulsates with festive good cheer and communal good will.

Much of this is down to Barclay and Whitam's wonderful double act. Barclay gives it some proper welly when his character's in misery mode: barking "humbug" with metronomic viciousness and berating the audience for their thickheaded sentimentality. Of course, by about the mid-way point he thaws into a rather bashful, playful figure as happiness wells up inside him. Whitam's Marley is the catalyst for this, playing Marley as a lively gadfly only somewhat burdened by being... well.. dead.



One thing that might give you pause is a mandatory requirement to socialise and make friends with your fellow audience members. We're cheek to jowl at the dinner table, not to mention being coaxed into playing parlour games with Scrooge and Marley. This comes to a head as dinner is served - after all, food is  the ur-example of communal humanity. If you want a full plate of food you're going to have to ask for someone to pass the potatoes, or ask if anyone has the gravy. Before you know it you're chatting happily with the people next to you, pulling crackers and swapping jokes. 

The food, incidentally, is great. A number of huge plates are placed on the long table and you help yourself. I'm vegetarian, so it was nice to be catered for with a butternut squash cottage pie, vegetarian gravy and heaps of roasted and seasoned vegetables. I asked my carnivorous buddies to give me a mini-review of the meat dishes - some bubbling thing with a lamb bone poking out the top - and received a concise "it's yummy." Just after I'd stuffed myself silly on the main course, Marley and Scrooge came round with heaps of mince pies, cheese and crackers, brandy custard and Christmas pudding. You could have rolled me out of there like a bowling ball.

It wraps up with a brilliantly literal staging of Scrooge's ultimate Christmas enlightenment. I won't spoil this, but it touched me and made me laugh in equal measure. This is a wonderful evening - the finest way to receive a transfusion of undiluted, concentrated Christmas cheer this side of Lapland. You won't be disappointed.

★★★★


A Christmas Carol is Above the Arts Theatre until 31st December. Tickets here.

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