Stirring up a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 7 – 20

Shake and Stir’s “A Christmas Carol’ begins with a tune, the ironic ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ (because there is little about which to be merry for those suffering in Victorian era poverty). Still, it’s a lovely yuletide introduction, before it is interrupted by protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge (Eugene Gilfedder) and his famous humbug exclamation.

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Fast forward to Christmas Eve seven years later after the death of Jacob Marley and we see the money-lender Ebenezer again, a cold-hearted penny-pincher who despises Christmas, tight-fisted and hunched over his accounts counting his coals and cursing the happiness of others, despite being rich enough not to be miserable. In his disdain for do-gooders and desire to just be left alone, he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard).

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After Scrooge is visited by his dead former business partner (Bryan Probets), now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor, three other ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Future show Ebenezer the error of his ways. He consequently changes to see Christmas as a charitable and forgiving time of togetherness.

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Nelle Lee’s wondrous adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella conveys a storybook feel, enhanced by the in-schools experience of many of its ensemble, which enables a craftedness of appeal for children and adults alike. At times, there is a pantomime atmosphere, not in the “he’s behind you!” sensibility of the peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theatre, but rather in the all-encompassing spirit and sentiment of a traditional tale told in way that allows families to share in a theatre experience.

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QPAC’s notoriously chilly Playhouse Theatre in this instance suits the bleakness of the story’s shadowy staging and accompanying haunting soundscape. The large stage space is used to full and frenetic advantage, particularly in the flurry of early set transformations, that sees almost Escher-like creation and disassembly of sets while in use, as gothic house frames are precisely positioned to project laneways and interiors alike.

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The most highly impressive moments, however, come courtesy of the crucial design efforts of Jason Glenwright (Lighting), Chris Perren (Sound) and Craig Wilkinson (Video) in awakening the story’s supernatural forces, particularly through its ghostly visions. Although there may be a couple of frightening moments for the youngest of viewers (the show is recommended for children eight years and over and includes warning about its supernatural themes, haze, smoke, strobe effects and loud music), it is these production values that keep this “A Christmas Carol” innovatively fresh. Not everything is big and bold, however. The pathos of ‘all skin and bones’ Tiny Tim, the youngest song of Bob Cratchit, gravely ill as his family cannot afford to properly treat him on the salary Scrooge his father, for example, is captured perfectly in his ingenious representation.

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The last time I saw “A Christmas Carol” on stage, I found it bothersome that in realisation of his salvation, Scrooge sent a passing youth to buy a turkey for the Cratchit family’s Christmas meal, without giving the errand-boy any funds. Thankfully, in this show, the request is accompanied by some coins. It is but a small detail of course, but one that reflects the overall care the company takes in all of its productions, for it is the combination of these smallest considerations which ultimately group in production of such consistently high-quality work.

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 Under Michael Futcher’s direction, everything about the show is tight and well-paced to maintain engagement of young and old alike. Many of the show’s hardworking cast members play multiple roles with ease. Gilfedder is perfection as the cantankerous Scrooge, both in his mostly-dour demeanour and when he excitedly transforms into a kindhearted person. And Probets is also wonderful as all four of the ghosts, often bringing an infectious sense of pantomime whimsy to his realisation of their characters. His Ghost of Christmas Past, in particular, is a jolly delight of impish, gleeful energy.

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I have never really been “A Christmas Carol” fan, apart from maybe the Muppet’s movie version (because I’m not totally heartless). Clearly, I am in the minority though; the Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of an evening, remains a classic holiday story despite being written in 1843. That this company can ignite the imaginations of the young and not-so, to regard its charm anew is a wonderful testament to their energy and spirit. Hopefully it will form part of a Christmas show ritual as audiences obviously cherish the tradition of its story and the endurance of its themes. Its tell of compassion, forgiveness, redemption and the might of kindness is made even more powerful by its humour and heart, making it maybe even better than the Muppets.

There is no better way to kick off your Christmas season than with the defining tale of the holiday in the English-speaking world, brought to magical life in a brand-new adaptation. With live musicians (Composer Salliana Campbell), yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes and, of course, snow, “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone, even those who imagine themselves to be more bah humbug than Christmas Carole.

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