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December 14, 2011 7:40 pm
Despite the countless film and stage adaptations, A Christmas Carol is still perhaps best experienced in storytelling form, allowing Dickens’ vivid prose to do its work. Think simply of his description of Scrooge’s house: “a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.” There’s a relish to the writing that is hard to beat. And so Simon Callow’s mesmerising delivery of the tale, a feat of memory and a labour of love, reminds you just what a master storyteller Dickens was and draws you into this much loved tale of redemption.
Taking Dickens’ own performances of the text as his starting point, Callow gives what is basically an enhanced narration. He walks on to the stage, dressed simply in an overcoat and scarf, and embarks on the tale, his own voice, rich as a figgy pudding, perfectly suited to the mix of gravitas, mystery and mischief.
Tom Cairns’ staging is remarkably atmospheric, using just a few chairs, a hint of music, shifts in lighting and a revolving screen on which foggy London streets can sometimes be discerned, or the clock that will herald the arrival of the three spirits. So it is that we imagine we see the three hair-raising ghosts – the shape-shifting first spirit, the ebullient second and the terrifying third – and hear the clanking chains that Jacob Marley must drag through eternity.
Callow, warming his hands on a meagre fire that springs up from the floorboards, deftly conveys the bleak confines of Scrooge’s home and heart – “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it” – and the miserable, clenched state in which he has imprisoned himself. But he also slips in and out of character to suggest the other significant figures in the story.
These switches could sometimes be clearer, particularly for those unfamiliar with the tale. Most important, though, Callow keeps sentiment on a tight rein, so that the end is genuinely moving.
And he brings individual scenes to life – the Fezziwigs’ jovial party; the Cratchits’ companionable lunch; the desolate and eerie graveyard – while at the same time tracing Scrooge’s gradual transformation and journey towards the light. A quietly spellbinding piece of theatre.
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