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  • Chris O'Rourke

Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol


***

The Show Must Go On

T’was the night before Christmas, 1938. In The CBS Studios a frantic Orson Welles is rapidly rewriting Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The legendary Lionel Barrymore, having withdrawn at the last minute, has put Welles in a bind. Cancel the annual broadcast, replay the one from last year, or take on Barrymore's role of Scrooge himself, along with the role of narrator. In Paul Nugent’s "Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol," a reconstruction of Welles’ 1938 broadcast is married to some playful, backstage embellishments. Delivering a delightful convergence of history and nostalgia, in which fact and fiction are topped and tailed with some tasty seasonal trimmings.

If a faithful reconstruction of Welles’ radio broadcast forms the spine of "Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol," its abridged version of Dickens’ classic is done fitting justice. Told as a radio broadcast performed live onstage, "Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol" is steeped in both Victorian sentiment and the diminished glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The latter brought vividly to life by Sonia Haccius’s detailed set, ably supported by Cathy O’Carroll’s subtle lighting and Tara McKeever’s period costumes, collectively serving up a rich accumulation of wonderfully observed oddments. Including a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain courtesy of a sound effects table.

Throughout, the glue that binds this merry mess together is the irrepressible Welles. Which, courtesy of Paul Nugent’s performance, finds Welles in possession of the busiest eyebrows in the business. If Nugent doesn’t quite capture Welles’ 'mighty Wurlitzer of a voice’ or convey his commanding, authoritative presence, Nugent might well have more in the tank to offer. If only what appear to be flu symptoms hadn’t restricted his vocal prowess. If Nugent overcompensates for this to his detriment at times, he still keeps everything moving, carrying the lion’s share of the dialogue. Giving, if not the most convincing Welles, or his most compelling performance, a shining example of a Welles like commitment to ensuring the show must go on even under adverse and demanding conditions.

A show whose remaining cast pick up the slack with aplomb, proving an absolute joy to watch and to listen to. Showing some impressive vocal range, Lizzy Morrissey’s Agnes Moorhead, Tana Walsh’s Arlene Francis, Michael Mullen’s Joseph Cotten, and David Ryan’s George Coulouris deliver strong and engaging performances as Welles’ partners in crime, with Ryan’s Tiny Tim raising more than a few chuckles. Eoin O’Sullivan, looking and sounding like the voice of Campbells Soup a la 1938, proves superb, doing so much more by doing so much less. Yet the real star is arguably Welles’ wizard behind the curtain, with Anna Nugent’s brightly buttoned Benny displaying a musical sense of timing, delivered with pin point accuracy, as she sets about creating sound effects live onstage. All of which director Kathleen Warner-Yeates composes with a meticulously detailed finesse, and presents with some fine pacing.

First produced in 2018, there’s a sense that AboutFACE Ireland are looking to develop a renewable seasonal vehicle for the company. If so, they could fare far worse than "Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol.” If a radio play performed live onstage sounds odd, "Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol” proves to be a delightful seasonal curiosity.

"Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol,” a live radio play by Paul Nugent, presented by AboutFACE Ireland, runs at The New Theatre until December 14.

For more information, visit The New Theatre.

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© 2016 Chris O'Rourke