The Playhouse’s annual festive spectacular was just one of hundreds of productions forced to switch online just before curtain was about to go up and as good as this recorded version is it will always lack the yuletide magic of gathering in a shared space.
This is a reworking of a production that began at Hull Truck Theatre, going on to be a big hit last year when the theatre’s ensemble brought it to life in the pop-up theatre used when the Playhouse was refurbed.
The Playhouse’s associate director Amy Leach cleverly invokes the legend that every theatre has a ghost, but she deploys a team of them as they emerge from their offstage pods. They have gathered round the traditional ghost light that burns when a theatre is dark, and once they discover a puppet of Tiny Tim they decide to do their own version of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey to redemption.
The most obvious difference is the moody Leeds docks set has been totally stripped back to an old school music hall stage by designer Hayley Grindle to reduce shared use of props, and allow the actors to work safely two metres apart, It also meant Leach had to rethink scenes like the dance in the house of Scrooge’s nephew Fred where the actors perform a slightly ungainly group dance out of hold, and it works less successfully on a perfunctory trip through Scrooge’s pivotal school years.
It’s tribute to Grindle’s typically smart design, which includes floor making to help the actors to keep their distance, and Chris Davey’s intelligent lighting that the new version still feels like a festive show with a massive Christmas tree making an appearance. Leach’s energetic direction, making the most of Deborah McAndrew’s economic adaptation, uses the open spaces well allowing the actors to be much more creative with their choices in the absence of props, or theatrical tricks.
Leach has been thinking hard recently about how to use disabled actors in her productions, casting Stephen Collins and Nadia Nadarajah as Mr and Mrs Cratchit. Their signing adds depth to the good hearted Cratchits battling to keep a sick child alive in the face of Scrooge’s parsimony as does the rest of the cast integrating British Sign Language into their work.
Watching A Christmas Carol is always a slightly odd experience as a festive treat because one minute the cast are merrily belting out a song, and the next a scary ghost is showing us a child’s grave. A lot depends on Scrooge, and Jack Lord is a blissfully misanthropic miser deftly peeling back the layers as three ghosts scare him, and us, to death.
Former ensemble member Tessa Parr is an eerie childlike Ghost of Christmas Past and Lisa Howard’s Christmas Present becomes a stern music hall act, which fills this big space. Another ensemble member Dan Parr offers a delightfully good-natured Fred and Everal Walsh brings some much needed charm to Mr Fezziwig.
In a world where a Leeds theatre company is running a foodbank, and Unicef are feeding our kids, it’s little wonder many theatres are returning to this Dickens classic for Christmas. We rejected the Victorian values that Dickens despised for a reason, so it is timely this lively cast of ghosts remind us why community and people being able to change really matter in a world where the twin spectres of ignorance and want are back to haunt us.
A Christmas Carol continues online until 23rd December at various times. Visit https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/whats-on/ for full details.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 21st December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★