Review: A Christmas Carol (Dundee Rep)
A ghost of Christmas past revisits the Rep
Many theatres across the UK are haunted by unfinished work brought to a sudden end by COVID-19, but only some choose to resurrect those lost productions. This year Dundee Rep and Noisemaker have done just that by bringing back their 2021 ensemble music-theatre production of A Christmas Carol, written by Scott Gilmour and Clair McKenzie. But bringing a production back inevitably begs two questions; is it as fresh as it once was, and did it deserve the critical acclaim it received on its first outing?
But this is a hard production to pin down. In the beginning, it is as though we are encountering the story for the first time: the performers, dressed in plain clothes and standing in front of a stack of stage crates, ask the audience what story they should tell (which is already asking for trouble) before pulling out a copy of Dickens’ classic. But this is not the traditional, loyal adaptation we first expect. On one hand, it takes very creative directions with some characters (most egregious of which is Mrs Cratchit’s solo ballad, which is an effective vehicle for Noisemaker's style of theatre but does little to add to the story), and on the other it fails to cover some of the basic necessities of the story (such as the lacklustre final ghost visit, but more on that later). There is nothing wrong with either a classic or creative take on the story, but having elements at opposite ends of the spectrum makes the performance feel unbalanced.
It may not be a straightforward adaptation, but you can get away with it for a story like A Christmas Carol. If you are an adult this is unlikely to be the first interpretation of the classic that you have seen, and if you are a child it will take several more encounters before you start to understand it anyway. So maybe it is worth letting Noisemaker and the Rep show off a bit, it is well worth it for the wonderous soundscape summoned by the multitalented cast, whose acting performances match their musicality. In fact, by showing the bare bones of the production – the instruments, the crates, the transformation from plain-clothed actors to fully-fledged characters – it acts as a healthy reminder that theatre does not just pop into existence, it is made.
Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Some parts of the hand-made style work better than others, for example, plucking a child from the audience to play Tiny Tim only to reveal that he is a brilliantly talented plant comes as a pleasant surprise. But there is another crucial character who is conspicuously absent: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. We hear his voice through a distorted microphone and we move through the scenes that await Ebenezer if he does not change his ways, but he has no bodily presence on stage. Squeamish parents and guardians may think this is for the best, but watching A Christmas Carol is one of the few chances children get to encounter something scary in their media. A healthy introduction to fear is not just good for kids but something they actually want. My favourite moment from Citizens production a few years ago was when an enormous spectral puppet swooped across the stage, which made all the children visiting with their schools squeal with horror and delight. Compared to any other imagining of the character, Noisemaker’s feels like a cowardly omission.
But, as if trying to make up for his absence, the other ghosts are all remarkable in their own way. Ann Louise Ross plays Marley, and she makes the most of her legendary status with the company and her comfort on the stage. Irene Macdougall lights up the stage as the Ghost of Christmas Present, even if some of her lines seem more catered to a grouchy middle-aged woman than a wonderous festive spirit. Best of all is Laura Lovemore as the diva-like Ghost of Christmas Past. The sore thumb of the performance is Benjamin Osugo as Fred, whose performance feels rigidly rehearsed, unable to make even the simplest sentence sound natural.
As the performance goes on the stage becomes more and more Christmassy, so much so you cannot believe how it started. Although it is checkered with flaws, it is also bursting with talent. It summons up that intangible festive warmth that you want at this time of year. Perhaps it lacks the freshness of 2021, but it still makes for a marvellously merry night out for all the family. Four stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "I really like it! Especially with bit with Marley"
A Chrismas Carol will play at Dundee Rep until the 30th of December