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A Christmas Carol

Published 17 April 2008

The crowded streets of Dickensian London thick with an all-engulfing fog, the merriment and excitement of a family spending Christmas together, a sky filled with the spirits of those who chose not to do good during their lifetimes; can one man really conjure all these images and more with the use of only six props? Matthew Amer attended the first night of Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol at the Albery to find out…

A dark stage. In the centre, lit by a spotlight, a pile of furniture holds a bright red book as its focal point. It conjures images of the start of fairytale adaptations where the book would open slowly by itself and a narrator would start to tell you the story before fading into the background as the pictures come to life… which is remarkably similar to what happens in Patrick Stewart’s adaptation of Dickens’s festive favourite.

Stewart, using only a table, a chair, a desk and a stool, plays every character in the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption, while also narrating. This inevitably leads to moments when Stewart is having a conversation with himself, but far from appearing like the stereotyped comedy split-personality, Stewart’s stage technique means he can slip between characters with ease; a slight change to the body language or a different intonation to his voice and he is no longer Scrooge but his over-exuberant nephew Fred.

Dickens’s own words provide the bulk of Stewart’s lines. It is not just the classic ‘Bah Humbug!’ we get – a line which is disposed of with such ease by Stewart that you hardly notice it has happened – but so much more of Dickens’s own descriptions and emotion.

Stewart – who also adapted the production which won the 1994 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment when it was first staged in London – has not shied away from the darker aspects of the story that are often glossed over. Still present are the lost souls, the selling of Scrooge’s belongings after his foreseen death and the often-cheery Spirit of Christmas Present’s dishevelled children, Ignorance and Want. Though the staging is innovative in its simplicity, the adaptation is certainly one for the purists.

A Christmas Carol without humour and the festive spirit would be like turkey without the stuffing, and though the darker aspects are there, Stewart revels in roles that bring smiles to the faces of everyone in the audience: the youngest Cratchit children, over-excited about their meagre Christmas goose; old Fezziwig, whose dancing has to be seen to be believed. Stewart’s self-made sound effects, which include a cat-strangling violin, the violent ringing of every bell in Scrooge’s home and the ‘g’doing’ of the clock bell chiming in the ghosts are both indulgent and amusing.

The story’s atmosphere, mostly set by Stewart’s own exposition and talent, is helped along by some clever lighting. This is most notable when the Spirit of Christmas Present is bathed in a warm red and when Stewart’s head is lit with an eerie yellow glow as the door knocker that becomes his long-dead partner Jacob Marley.

Stewart’s performance, as suggested by the ever-present book left on a lectern at the front of the stage, is that of an old-fashioned story-teller, drawing the audience in so that everyone in the theatre shares the feeling of being entertained while sitting around a roaring fire on a cold winter night.

A Christmas Carol is playing at the Albery until 31 December. em>MA

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