Restirring a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 2 – 24

At certain times of year or age, we have perhaps all felt a little like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol”. As shake and stir theatre co’s adaptation reminds us, however, the cold-hearted elderly miser that we meet at the outset of the story is still capable of transformation. The initially spiteful and mean-spirited character’s redemption comes after he is visited, on the night before Christmas, by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley (now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor), and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, which takes audiences to a lovely celebration of the festive generosity of spirit at the core of the Christmas season.

The award-winning production is as pantomime as Brisbane gets, particularly in the performances of Eugene Gilfedder as the misanthropist Scrooge, whose disdain for do-gooders and Bah! Humbug! desire to just be left alone, indicates that he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard). More than just being cantankerous, however, Gilfedder’s Scrooge is quite funny, especially when relishing in his own amusements, which gives the character a depth beyond caricature. Bryan Probets, too, is wonderfully engaging as Marley’s ghost of Christmas past, present and future, particularly in drag as an Edwardian lady all dressed in white. And his physical commitment to floating in place and hovering across the stage is impressive in its add to the story’s authenticity.   

Michael Futcher’s nimble direction sees the perennial story pace along with performers jumping in and out of scenes and roles without detracting from audience investment in their worlds. Ross Balbuziente is magnetic as the younger, almost-once-married Scrooge of earlier times. He also banters buoyantly with Nick Skubij as children in the Christmas-present Cratchit family experience, both to juxtapose the family’s innocence and happiness against Scrooge’s misery, and also in foreshadow of the tragedy coming should Scrooge not change his miserly ways.

This is a grand production, perfect for the entire family, complete with live music, yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes, snow and a supersized turkey. Josh McIntosh’s design ensures that Dickensian London is brought vibrantly to life through a complicated but versatile mobile set design. Guy Webster’s sound design and Jason Glenwright’s lighting design, both cool us into the Victorianness of its drama and warm us towards its final affirming messages. And on-stage musicianship courtesy of internationally-acclaimed violinist Tabea Sitte soundtracks our transport across times.

While the show is now in its fourth year, this “A Christmas Carol” remains thoroughly innovative, particularly in its state-of-the-art video projections by Craig Wilkinson which awaken the story’s supernatural forces, particularly its ghostly visions and give us some Doctor Who type time vortex travel visions. While there are some moments of darkness, in keeping with its grim gothic ghost story origins, Nelle Lee’s adaption is ultimately a heart-warming tale that maintains the essence of the original, while igniting the appeal of the magical story to a modern-day audience. Indeed, it is difficult to leave the Playhouse Theatre upon the show’s end without being filled with uplifting appreciation for the Christmas spirit as something to be lived out every day.

Photos c/o – David Fell

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Fair is foul and foul is fair

Macbeth (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

March 24 – April 13

Queensland Theatre Company’s flagship 2014 show is an ambitious production. Directed by lauded UK director Michael Attenborough (son of Richard Attenborough), “Macbeth” is presented in association with veteran Brisbane theatre troupe Grin & Tonic and features one of QTC biggest casts of recent years, with 16 actors taking to the stage. The result is an epic production that honours Shakespeare’s work with an impressive design aesthetic that, like “The Mountaintop” and “Mother Courage” explores the depths and possibilities of The Playhouse stage.


It is a thrilling beginning, when from amidst the misty, primitive darkness of the gnarled forest of a civil war ravaged wasteland, three witches appear to seduce Macbeth into acceptance of their prophecy that he will be king. It is a dark and dangerous place for as Macbeth himself notes, “let not light see my black and deep desires”. Foul in sisterly weirdness, these secret, hostile, midnight hags (Ellen Bailey, Lauren Jackson and Courtney Stewart) lithely limber over each other with an air of ethereality, like feral Tempest Ariels. Their writhed dance (choreography by Nerida Matthaei) is complemented by their breathy proclamations as they spit out the prophecies that inspire Macbeth’s vaulting ambition.

Other members of the all Queensland cast project similar dynamism in their darkness. Jason Klarwein is commanding in the titular role of the famed General Macbeth, a man of ambition, but also insecurity. Indeed, it is as the newly-crowned, but increasingly paranoid Scottish king that he truly shines, as his tragic hero seeks to ensure his kingship is safely thus through ordering Banquo’s murder. Klarwein’s imposing presence on stage is complemented by Veronica Neave, who delivers a determined, interpretation of the role of Lady Macbeth. Though they are both at home with Shakespeare’s challenging text, however, their Act One soliloquies sometimes appear to be fourth-wall break speeches to the audience, rather than vehicles for their characters to reflect, which is enhanced though the lack of gesture in seminal soliloquies such as Lady’s Macbeth’s plea for the spirits to fill her top-full of direst cruelty.


The ensemble is strong, and features some effective doubling. Eugene Gilfedder is perfect as the meek and gentle Duncan, before being reincarnated the Doctor, observing Lady Macbeth’s incriminating recollection that she never knew the old man to have so much blood in him. And Lauren Jackson also shows versatile prowess playing a witch and Lady Macduff. Lucas Stibbard, enlivens his scenes as the Porter, bringing out the only humour in the production when playing the crude, jester-like character and Thomas Larkin (for what would the Bard in Brisbane be without him) gives an impressive performance as a proud Prince Malcolm.


This is a testosterone-driven play of grimy, muscled men, bloodied from their war wounds. And it features impressive stage combat, including a final blow in the Macduff and Macbeth battle scene that brings a collective gasp from the audience. Everything about the design of this “Macbeth” is notable. David Walter’s lighting design achieves a stunning presence whether warming the banquet scene, shadowing the violence or illuminating Birnam Wood’s approach arising from within the stage itself. Phil Slade’s composition and sound design is similarly impressive in its ability to capture the grand heraldry of this epic work. Costuming too is effective, with the wash of cold charcoals and greys enhancing the ruling metaphor of darkness down to the smallest of details, like the mud-stained hems of the servant garb.

QTC have created a passionate production of Shakespeare’s psychological horror. If you like the Scottish play, you will like this production. And if you aren’t a fan, this won’t necessarily make you fall in love with it, but it will give you plenty of moments to appreciate, especially in the wild darkness Simone Romaniuk’s imaginative design element in which fair is foul and foul is fair.