So the second nag in my Rep theatre handicap stakes has left the stable and strutted around the paddock. The first, Plaza Suite, fluffed the first few fences but ultimately showed a bit of group class. This one, A Christmas Carol, promised a lot from its classy breeding. By Alistair Brown, out of Charles Dickens, and ridden by Phil Baker. It has Gold Cups written all over it. So why did I leave this adaptation by John Mortimer of Rumpole fame with my gob less than totally smacked? At the risk of extending the tortuous horseracing analogy way beyond its usefulness I reckon, for all its obvious merits, this equine star was carrying just a bit too much weight. And weight, as all handicappers know, can stop trains.
Mr Brown had staged it with all his usual panache and flair. Stairs and a balcony allowed colourful Dickensian characters to frame the action and his beloved central turning circle and atmospheric smoke and lighting did the rest. And he had more ideas for trickery than you could shake a stick at. Some worked beautifully, actor’s voices ringing bells, imaginary door knocks, and performers playing the parts of furniture and, in one case, an overfed turkey. But with such an imagination it is easy to take your eye off the ball. His Want and Ignorance children were so wholesome and well scrubbed they could have come straight from an advert for Pears soap. The Fezziwigg party lacked the gaiety and colour needed to contrast the prevailing gloom. And, worst of all, Scrooge’s witness of his own tombstone lacked the harrowing vision needed to cut the heart. No fault of the actor, Phil Baker was superb in the role, but he was ill served by our muted and cursory glance at a weak depiction of his end. The culmination of the story of his life went out with a whimper rather than a bang.
None of this would have mattered if the general thrust of the piece had been totally sound. After all you can’t like all the cherries on the cake. But telling the tale through actor’s narration presents its own problems. We get all the gaps filled in and, with a story so familiar, it can seem a bit repetitive and slow. It worked with the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby by David Edgar and could have done so here if only the best actor’s voices were used. But it was all spread too thinly and much as I liked the presentation I was not blind, or deaf, to this inherent fault.
So where does that leave the actors who filled the parts in a clever and always entertaining production which fell just short of its imaginative directors concept? I have already said that Phil Baker’s Scrooge was superb. It was all that and much more. His classic and incisive voice, touched by a smidgeon of Irish brogue, wrenched every inch of the variety of emotions that all Scrooges must go through. He was hardly ever off stage and his performance never flagged. And in playing to his own shadow, The Spirit of Christmas yet to Come, he and Mr Brown combined with a piece of theatricality which was awesome in its inventiveness. Ralph Gough was a beautifully humble Bob Cratchit and Joe Butcher, heralded by effective red lighting, a strong and homely Christmas Present. More wool than a flock of Welsh sheep, but highly engaging. The Cratchit’s Christmas dinner scene ticked all my emotional boxes and Lynette Driver played her fiddle with aplomb. And in a large cast I was particularly taken with newcomers Steve Loczy and Hayley Vaughn in a variety of roles. Mr Loczy had a voice so pleasing and strong I would have given him much more of the narration.
But I suppose my biggest grouse, plusses and minuses aside, was that this production lacked surprise. It ain’t easy with a story that is almost as famous as the Nativity, but it is an essential theatrical ingredient. We got that at the end with an all enveloping Christmas card scene of snowflakes and glitzy lighting. This was wonderful. Almost made me forget the faults. A bit like a favourite horse making a number of dodgy jumps and getting up on the line to the winning post at Kempton or Cheltenham. Dunstable Rep and their Christmas Carol this week, a mixture of dazzling concept and the occasional awkward execution, cantered and galloped in the same style. So I left the theatre mentally giving three stars to a show that potentially might have got four or five. I have the same problems with horses.