Stage Door Review 2021

A Christmas Carol

Sunday, November 21, 2021


by Tim Carroll, directed by Molly Atkinson

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

November 20-December 21, 2021

Scrooge: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends”

This is the fourth year beginning in 2017 that the Shaw Festival has staged Tim Carroll’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol but the first year I have had a chance to see it. The show is a treat for the eyes and has a high level of theatricality, but it seems almost deliberately superficial by avoiding any of the darker aspects of Dickens’s tale. The storytelling itself is so lax that a person knowing only Carroll’s version might well wonder what the point of the story is.

The show, with Molly Atkinson recreating Tim Carroll’s original direction, begins in a pleasant enough fashion with the cast singing Christmas carols to their own accompaniment. Mykola Leontovych’s well-known “Carol of the Bells” sung to handbells that opens Act 2 is especially effective. The carols are one of the main pleasures of the show, and although the ensemble sings in tight harmony the rich soprano of Marie Mahabal tends to soar above the rest.

The backdrop for each act that also serves as the backdrop for Scrooge’s office is a proscenium-filling advent calendar whimsically depicting the Festival’s own Niagara-on-the-Lake in winter. We expect at some time that the door will open in their numbered sequence, but this never happens. Instead, some doors come off and serve as props.

Most notably one of the doors becomes the desk for Scrooge (Graeme Somerville), held up for him by a woman dressed as a peasant (Patty Jamieson). This one image says more about social inequality in the world of the play than anything in the text. Another door serves both as the desk of Bob Cratchit (Andrew Lawrie), which he holds up himself and as the door to the office, which he moves himself. Again the image speaks louder about Cratchit’s subservience than anything in the text.

With the parade of visitors to the Scrooge’s office, disappointment sets in. Scrooge turns down an invitation to dinner from his nephew Fred (Travis Seetoo*), but Fred doesn’t express the disappointment one expects. Besides, designer Christine Lohre has dressed Fred like such a dandy that he hardly fits Scrooge’s description of him as “poor enough”.

Scrooge turns away Mr. Hubble (Jason Cadieux), a kind man seeking a donation for the poor. When Hubble suggests that many people would rather die than go to the poorhouse, Scrooge says, “If they would rather die,... they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”. Strangely, the way that Somerville makes this declaration, sounds more like a logical rebuttal of Hubble’s statement rather than a cruel expression of Scrooge’s deep misanthropy. Similarly, Scrooge’s argument with Cratchit over working on Christmas Day comes off more as an annual game the two play rather than Scrooge’s deep-seated hatred of holidays.

For the scenes in Scrooge’s bedroom, the advent calendar rises and reveals an unexpectedly large four-poster bed in a richly wood-panelled room. This does not reflect Scrooge’s miserliness at all, especially as set forth in Dickens’s text, where the house is described as “gloomy” and “dreary” and where Scrooge won’t even put enough wood on the fire to keep himself warm. Dickens’s Scrooge is too cheap to have a servant but Carroll, oblivious to the character’s nature, gives him one, a Mrs. Dilbert (Patty Jamieson), a character who is only a generic laundress in Dickens.

As we discover Christine Lohre has designed the four-poster so that can cleverly unfold and become a wall in Fred’s house, a stage for shadow puppets or a series of frames for small scenes. As with the overdressing of Fred, the bed becomes another in what turns out to be a series of judgements by Carroll and Lohre favouring design over sense.

The appearance of Marley’s ghost confirms this view. It is a gigantic puppet and requires several people to manipulate it, one simply to move Marley’s hat over his non-existent head. The decision to represent Marley, Scrooge’s now-deceased partner, in such a way is perverse for many reasons. First, what Dickens emphasizes most about Marley is his face – a face that appears in the text on Scrooge’s door-knocker, on the fireplace tiles and on the bell-pull. Here, there is no face at all, which makes the character simply a spectre and not a person with a personal warning for his former co-worker.

Second, Marley is further depersonalized by being given gigantic size. This is meant to be the ghost of a human being and it is odd to treat it in just the same way that Carroll and Lohre will treat the abstract Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Third, by blowing Marley up to such a size, Lohre has neglected Marley’s second most important feature, his chains. Other productions depict the ghost of Marley heaped with chains. Here, they are far too hard to notice.

Kelsey Verzotti is an impish Ghost of Christmas Past who gives Scrooge a very muted version of Scrooge’s childhood compared to other productions. We see that he was lonely, that he attended the ball of ebullient Mr. Fezziwig (Jason Cadieux) and, through the use of shadow puppets that his beloved Belle breaks off her engagement with him. What we don’t get is any idea of Scrooge’s relationship with Belle before she breaks with him. Nor do we get any idea of how Belle married happily after leaving Scrooge, the scene that in Dickens pains him the most.

Peter Fernandes is an appropriately jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, but Carroll has softened the scenes he shows Scrooge just as he had those of Christmas Past. The Ghost takes Scrooge to Fred’s Christmas party which Lohre has imagined in a most bizarre manner. Like Fred, everyone is dressed in an over-the-top manner as if they were nouveau riche, as opposed to being of modest means as the text states. Lohre gives Fred a headpiece that also serves as a drinks tray which makes him look even more ridiculous and superficial. The odd depiction of the party totally undermines its point of showing how ordinary good people celebrate the holiday.

With the portrayal of the Cratchit’s Christmas, Carroll chooses theatricality over emotional impact by making Tiny Tim, like all the other Cratchit children, a puppet. This decision follows that of making Marley a puppet and Belle a shadow puppet, i.e. of depersonalizing the three people who ought to have the greatest emotional connection to Scrooge. Readers will know that I am a fan of all sorts of puppetry. Yet, they will note that puppeteers like Puppetmongers or Ronnie Burkett if they interact with their puppets, tend to place themselves in an inferior relationship to their puppets to elevate the importance of the puppet. Here, however, the human-puppet relationship is unequal to the detriment of the puppet. A human-to-human relationship is necessary so that we, and Scrooge, will feel the loss of the fellow human beings in his life more keenly.

This becomes glaringly clear in the scenes of Christmas Yet To Come, where we see the Cratchit family mourning the death of Tiny Tim. Although I’ve seen A Christmas Carol far too many times, I still could not figure out why the Cratchit family was gathered at a grave. They were surrounded by their family of puppet children and I just assumed that the puppet Tiny Tim was among them. Thus, making a puppet of Tiny Tim obscures rather than emphasizes the importance both of his presence and of his absence.

Somerville is excellent at depicting the giddily happy Scrooge who wakes up a changed man after his night of visions. In Carroll’s version, since Scrooge is not as utterly cold-hearted at the beginning his change is not the great reversal it should be. This is mostly because Carroll’s adaptation has been unwilling to sound the very emotional notes that give the story its depth. Carroll’s adaptation seems to wish to carnivalize the visions of the three ghosts through theatrical distractions in order not to disturb the show’s overall lightheartedness.

As a holiday entertainment for the whole family it may well be that a theatrical but superficial account of Dickens’s story is just what people will want. The songs and the many types of puppetry may supply enough for anyone to enjoy. The only problem is that the storytelling suffers and the rationale for Scrooge’s change is not at all clear. In fact, we understand Carroll’s Scrooge mostly from clichés we’ve picked up from other versions of the story.

A more probing adaptation can be just as enjoyable and ultimately more satisfying. Michael Shamata’s adaptation, long an annual staple at Soulpepper in Toronto (barring this December and last) focusses on human relationships and emotions rather than special effects and is vastly more engaging as drama. Dennis Garnhum’s adaptation, that played twice at the Grand Theatre, London, still emphasizes human relationship despite its spectacle. Tim Carroll’s version is best for those content with two hours of diversion rather than a greater understanding of a holiday classic.

Christopher Hoile

*In the production I saw, Travis Seetoo played the roles assigned to Kelly Wong and Gabriella Sundar Singh played those assigned to Marla McLean.

Photo: Marley’s Ghost and Graeme Somerville as Scrooge; Marla McLean, Kelly Wong, Marie Mahabal, Jason Cadieux, Kelsey Verzotti and Patty Jamieson; Graeme Somerville as Scrooge; Marla McLean as Mrs. Cratchit and Andrew Lawrie as Bob Cratchit with puppet of Tiny Tim on his knee. © 2021 David Cooper.

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