Christmas comes but once a year. And brings with it many seasonal offerings. Handel’s Messiah at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Wizard of Oz on television. Or a staged production of "A Christmas Carol" for all the family to see. Indeed, this year you can’t seem to jingle a bell without coming across another staged version of Dickens’ 1843 classic about the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet before you start groaning like Jacob Marley, "A Christmas Carol" has proven itself extremely accommodating to adaptation, producing perennial favourites that easily sit alongside one another. The Muppets, Alastair Sims, even Bill Murray have taken the stingy taskmaster out for a whirl. As does Jack Thorne’s Hollywood glossed reimagining of "A Christmas Carol," first produced in the Old Vic, London, in 2017. Serving up a picture postcard, snow globe of Victorian sentimentality, lightly laced with some modern values, under director Selina Cartmell Thorne’s script becomes a sumptuously staged spectacle. A Christmas blockbuster showing the unashamed opulence of a Victorian Christmas dinner, overflowing with an abundance of tasty trimmings.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, you’re most likely familiar with the tale of Dickens’ stingy miser visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve, along with his encounters with Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and a host of other memorable characters. If Thorne’s script suggests a faithful abridgement rather than an adaptation early on, the arrival of three funereal, female ghosts in the shape of the worldly wise Fionnula Flanagan, an uber cool Camille O’Sullivan, and a deceptively charming Kate Gilmore, delivers some potent twists in terms of gender and direction. Reinforced by a substantially expanded Belle, a wonderfully open hearted Rachel O’Byrne as Scrooge’s childhood sweetheart. Some modest, but effective tweaks to Scrooge’s own story, most notably his relationship with his father, suggest psychological traumas informing moral choices, opening the way for a more modern interpretation of Scrooge and his pained experiences.
Skating across themes of personal accountability, consequences for choices, and the unfair distribution of wealth, Thorne’s "A Christmas Carol" emphasises Victorian values closer to a modern sensibility, especially when it comes to ideas of community and inclusivity. A process which transforms "A Christmas Carol" from a haunting ghost story into something resembling an English medieval morality play. One in which man is haunted by his choices, and the events that shape him, rather than by unseen forces. As a result, despite its unscary ghosts, Thorne's version divests Dickens’ tale of much of its supernatural overtones, favouring a more modern reading in which psychological trauma and a moral conscience serve as catalysts, with Dickens' old ghostly images being remade into new modern metaphors.
A tension director Selina Cartmell visually exploits, delivering "A Christmas Carol" steeped in understated steampunk, looking all Victorian with just a hint of a modern twist. Something Katie Davenport’s luscious costumes credibly evoke, suggesting period norms for the most part, with a print patterned jacket, and Jacob Marley’s underwater helmet, suggesting a modern vision faithful to the past. Yet the real eye catcher is Ciaran Bagnall’s traverse stage, whose trapdoors and strong boxes prompt imaginative leaps to fill in the spaces it imaginatively evokes. Along with a need for pin point accuracy for hitting marks, with doorframes rising and the floor being constantly refashioned.
If Bagnall’s set tips its hat heavily in the direction of other productions of Thorne’s "A Christmas Carol," Bagnall makes it distinctly his own. His extraordinary lighting transforming the reconfigured Gate into a variety of imaginative spaces, with the traverse often resembling a candle-lit, Victorian music hall. Something David Bolger’s choreography richly enhances as dancers twirl in and out of memory, or communally celebrate with rambunctious joy. Richly assisted by Denis Clohessy and Cathal Synnott who deliver lashings of seasonal sounding music, including a rich array of Christmas carols sung live onstage. With none more moving than when the bells ring out for Silent Night.
Throughout, a hard working cast including Steve Blount, Niamh McCann, Simone Collins, Caitríona Ennis, Muiris Crowley, Fionn Foley, Hugh O’Connor, Simon O’ Gorman, Kevin C. Olohan, and a scene stealingly brilliant Niamh Moriarty as Tiny Tim, rotating the role with Freddy Cornally, finds most playing a number of characters. All moving like a well oiled machine, negotiating sharp transitions and rapid costume changes with impressive skill. Whilst also delivering some seriously invested performances. An irrepressible Owen Roe as the iconic Scrooge, dressed in scarf, top hat and heavy overcoat throughout - even when asleep - doesn’t slow for a moment despite wearing such a stultifying burden under heavy lights. Throughout, Roe consistently delights as the money scrapping miser, never more so than during his final, heart warming transformation.
Showing all the bells and whistles of an imported, West End production, for some, Thorne’s blockbuster styled "A Christmas Carol," with its forced, smiley faced, faux Disney-like flavours, will have just a little too much sentimental icing sugar coating its revisionist mince pies. For others, it’s that very childlike, sugary excess which makes "A Christmas Carol" all the more sumptuous and enjoyable. Either way, Cartmell does stupendously well in delivering a spectacular Christmas experience. Which includes one of the most delightful, feel good endings you’re likely to experience for quite some time, the final moments alone being worth the price of admission. And if you happen to be very lucky, as the audience were on opening night, that ending might transform into something that little bit extra special. A moment of theatre magic to treasure, which tips the experience from the memorable into the magical, and helps to make the season bright. A production likely to melt even the most Bah Humbug, Christmas hating Scrooge, "A Christmas Carol" is an irresistible joy, delivering a surfeit of seasonal riches.
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens in a new version by Jack Thorne, directed by Selina Cartmell, runs at Gate Theatre until January 18, 2020.
Recommended for audiences 8+
For more information, visit Gate Theatre.