"Evil Greed Haunts Us Still"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 23/12/11

In presenting 'A Christmas Carol: Smoke & Mirrors,' producers at The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, conceived a drama-packed, intensely performed, very visual treatment for staging Shaun McCarthy's adaptation of Charles Dickens's famous tale. Ebenezer Scrooge and his conversion from 'old meany' to charitable benefactor was seen to need only four actors to share in playing some 20 characters. But this compacting of a usually larger & unwieldy cast here serves to focus & stimulate the company into giving their audience an experience of theatre, more immediate, more generously shared with their patrons than is normally possible in larger venues.

Working together, a versatile creative team led by innovative director, David Lockwood developed a concept of the production that inspired playwright Shaun McCarthy, by his long writing experience, to adapt the book with skill and sensitivity. Respecting the text the team curtailed the essential story down to a mere two-hours on the stage.

Enterprising Designer of Set & Costumes, Bee Watson creates a versatile stage set of dark movable panels and doors, cog-like wheels suggesting clockwork, reminiscent of the burgeoning industries and the consciousness of time and a need for speed that machines urged upon Victorian Society of all classes. The set is altered during the performance, to suggest shifting places & times.

Underlying all this is Dickens's concern, emphasized by writer & director that lust for profits had disregarded the welfare of ordinary people; employees and their families, those out of work, the sick & the lame, Tiny Tim and all.

Lust for money infects all levels of humanity and both Dickens & this production show equally the callous greed regretted by the Ghost of Scrooge's dead business partner, Jacob Marley – and the distasteful trade of the scavengers who rob dead men's belongings & sell them to unscrupulous persons who buy without compunction. And are these the causers or symptoms of society's corruption, or is it that human beings are more adaptable & pragmatic than charitable and altruistic?

Excellent performances by all four actors effectively bring to life, McCarthy's script. Using much of Dickens's original dialogue & description McCarthy adds sensible and appropriate interpolation that keeps the action flowing, the words comprehensible and often gives it humour.

Lending essential support to the play's vitality are sound effects and music. Sound Designer, Dan Wiseman has been ingenious in sustaining a spooky atmosphere (for example, distant clocks chiming the relentless quarters & hours played on strings of a violin) and the music, some played live, some jolly and others, contemplative. A moving version of “Deck The Halls” is played at a hauntingly slow tempo on violin by Loren O'Dair who also plays admirably, all the female roles in this production. Carol-singing by the cast is lively and enjoyable.

The house lights fade and the performance begins. From the darkness rises a plaintive violin in a mournful lament, forlorn and distant, the bow thinly sawn across agonised strings. The effect seems to mourn in a bleak, despairing world.

A crowd of Londoners bustle in, going about their pre-Christmas errands. They cross & re-cross the stage. The rhythm varies, the pace increases. The four actors perform a kaleidoscope of Vida Harrison's niftily choreographed, inter-weaving movements, neatly slipping between each other & on the run, exchanging items of fittingly period style costumes, so creating an impression of many more than four performers.

Efficient stage-manager Hannah Rowley, is mistress of technical electrics and a complicated network of strings & wires, remotely controlling some unusual contraptions.

Animations created by James Cleland ingeniously represent the Spirits of Christmas, Past, Present & 'Yet To Come.' These appear randomly on window blinds, their disembodied voices cajoling Scrooge to study the lessons they show him.

Ben Crispin makes a welcome return to The Bike Shed as Scrooge giving a reliably developed characterisation of the embittered miser, inwardly torn apart when reminded of his youthful error, casting aside love for monetary gain. Crispin as always, gives himself totally to this role.

Charlie Coldfield offers stoical warmth as family man, Bob Cratchit, pathos as Marley's Ghost, & jollity as Fezziwigg in well-prepared portions. He is sympathetically partnered in Loren O'Dair's convincing Mrs Cratchit. As young Ebenezer's fiance, Belle, she is lighter, full of young gaiety and well-controlled emotion as their betrothal falters. In these and additional cameo roles, plus her musical prowess, Ms O'Dair is indeed an asset to be treasured.

Joe Sellman-Leava is versatile; tall dark & handsome as young Scrooge and jolly as Old Scrooge's nephew. Joe also memorably plays the lad whom Scrooge sends to fetch the “biggest turkey” on Christmas morning. In a witty altercation with the newly re-jollified Scrooge, Joe impeccably rattles off lines introduced by McCarthy but written by a contemporary of Dickens and with whom he might have shared ideas about social injustice. It may be that the pair actually met, but who knows what dialectic on materialism they would have argued or agreed upon? McCarthy wittily gives us a hint in his version of “A Christmas Carol: Smoke & Mirrors.”

Don't be a miser, treat yourself to this fresh take on the old story at The Bike Shed Theatre until January 7th.

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