"Haunting hour upon the stage"
by Chris Bearne for remotegoat on 18/12/08

What could be more appropriate for the "less is more" treatment than the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge? When it's Christmas, there's a show to be done, money's short and the space is bare, the only stretchable resources left are human. So, here's A Christmas Carol that exploits - exuberantly - the only things available in abundance: talented people … and chairs.

Oh, and a Scrooge, of course. We were, alas, deprived of the performance of Aaron Barschak, conceiver of this piece, for health reasons, but were rewarded with another tour de force from Edward Kingham, who recently delighted us with his work in The Hostess of the Inn. What a small, dark space provides so well is claustrophobia. The proximity of the audience to the heaving humanity on stage (more in a moment) brings the walls right in, and Kingham's performance taps into this. From his fingertip-counting tic to the horrors of reading his own headstone, he plays this like some driven creature in a German expressionist movie. He has the eyes for it (please let all of us see them, though, all of the time). It works a treat. Things seldom seen : Scrooge helpless, kissing-close to the lost love of his life ; Scrooge no onlooker, but right in amongst the suffering Cratchits ; Scrooge reeling from his own rat-gnawed corpse, always trapped inside his visions, and us with him. This is not to be had on a screen, however compelling the image, or even on a big stage.

With just a shift of chairs, a spin of bodies, a lighting change and noises on, we follow Scrooge around his counting house, up and down the shadowy alleys of London, weaving through the crowds, avoiding human warmth. And when the supernatural takes over, we get to share in Scrooge's experience, not of a bad dream or two, merely, but of sensory overload. The spirits of Christmas past, present and yet to come we expect, but not the overwhelming forces they summon up to melt, soften, shake and terrify Scrooge into his redemption.

This is the work of the youthful ensemble, deploying all manner of skills to achieve its purpose. Its play is full of invention, humour and surprise. It is company work, but I have to mention Barbara Link for her sheer versatility (from Tiny Tim to Christmas Future on points), Mark Gillham for Young Scrooge and Jade-Elize Lorentz, his Belle ; also John Hellman for his truly engaging Fred and above all Joe Shefer for his heartbreaking Bob Cratchit, and his Headmaster…which brings us to the School.

Now, to get all this humanity on stage you have to start somewhere : here, the framing device is the school play in "a small, poor British school in the north-western corner of The Old City in Jerusalem", with "members of the Jerusalem community" invited to perform. Too many layers? I fear so. You have to start with "doing kids". This was done well, but then you're stuck with it. And on top of that you've been set up to watch for the shades and resonances of this new context. Inventive but really distracting. It wasn't remotely enough to put me off the show, which was a joy, but the physical theatre, the lighting (when it has learned to stop playing catch-up) and Scrooge's story stand on their own. Humbug-free.

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