A Christmas Carol at Ensemble Theatre is a delightfully modern yet faithful interpretation of this timeless and universal tale by Charles Dickens. Full of surprising treats that unravel like Christmas gifts, the play tells a story about riches of the heart versus the pocket, and the power of good.
Pioneering the use of time travel, Dickens’ tale is endearing and enduring, revealing how an old, bitter, selfish and stingy businessman in the form of Ebenezer Scrooge came to be, and how he reappraises the course of his life when confronted by the ghosts that come to haunt him.
Hilary Bell’s wonderful adaptation is faithful to the book word for word, re-creating the masterpiece that is visually ripe in Dickens’ story. Surrounding the nucleus of this classic tale is Bell’s creation of a touring theatre group who have stopped by for an evening to re-enact, narrate and sing the story to a captive audience, giving a modern perspective of how the themes are still very much prevalent today.
John Bell as Scrooge is formidable, imposing and, if this weren’t a family show, a bit of a d!ck. (But as this is a family show, we shall call that behaviour ‘churlish’). He carries himself with Murdoch zeal, dismissing anyone beneath him with a piercing icy reproach, revelling in the pain buried in his cold, cold heart, colder than the freezing winter outside. As John Bell playing himself he’s a much more likeable fellow, giving a wonderful speech at the end about the power of theatre to change the world for the better, and encouraging audience members to donate to this charity.
Watching this revered acting veteran thaw from icy Scrooge to a much warmer version is a gift of acting in itself; nothing is regarded as too silly or childish in his repertoire…even when doing an improprietous toilet scene on stage it’s done with pure class.
Anthony Taufa as Scrooge’s nephew and various phantoms matches Bell’s imposing stature; most impressive was his face as a haunted door-knocker bearing the face of Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. It should be noted that in this play Marley’s ghost is suited and suave, whereas in the book, Marley was wrapped up in chains loaded with the padlocks, ledgers and safety boxes he staked his life upon; it would have been awesome to see how these things imprisoned him instead of just a heavy chain dangling away on stage left. But suited and suave Marley it is. And everything’s gonna be alright.
Valerie Bader as Mrs Cratchit and Chief Orator breathes life into Dickens’ words like she stepped right out of the pages of his novel when the ink was barely dry; maybe she travelled through time and really is the ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’? 🤔 It was a commendable performance.
Jay James-Moody in the actual role of Xmas Past, as well as Bob Cratchit, also looked like another time traveller contender from 1843, except he had a laptop which definitely was not around in Dickens’ time. His performance was sweetly cherubic.
Emily McKnight plays several singing roles, including Scrooge’s ex-fiancé who breaks up with him when his work-obsessed habits become unbearable. She also expertly puppeteered the Cratchits’ tiny little fragile boy, Tiny Tim, which….(to be churlish) looked like a lithopedion version of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets. Though the mawkish design got some laughs, his sweet song and giggles convincingly turned the key of Scrooge’s heart.
Steven Kramer as virtuoso Mr Snevellicci played piano throughout the performance, lending beautiful tunes and twinkling sound effects. It was a bold but interesting choice to have him displayed on stage with his back to the audience; there is definitely something about live music and the way he plays that touches the soul.
Other stagecraft elements that worked well was the use of simple, understated props such as a faux window, a microphone, several ringing bells, a gong, and shredded paper to create the essence of shifting mood, time, temperature and the portal between life and death. The program with full cast and crew credits can be found here, with a superb introduction by the show’s director, Damien Ryan.
Overall, A Christmas Carol at Ensemble Theatre is a beautifully wrapped gift from the heart that no-one should miss for the world. On till 29 December 2022. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://www.ensemble.com.au/shows/a-christmas-carol/
Image credit: Jaimi Joy