Stage Door Review

A Huron County Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

✭✭

written and directed by Gil Garratt

Blyth Festival, Memorial Hall, Blyth

November 29-December 22, 2019

Marley’s Ghost: ”We should build the community, not business”

You would think Southern Ontario would have had its fill of Christmas Carols. In December Toronto alone will see three staged versions while the Shaw Festival presents the second revival of its own version. Now the Blyth Festival has joined the Christmas Carol competition, but it has done so with a difference. Artistic Director Gil Garratt has adapted Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale and relocated it to the present in Huron county. The result is  the Blyth Festival’s first-ever winter production – A Huron County Christmas Carol with songs by John Power.

The show is a real joy. The wit that Garratt has used in updating and staging the story makes it shine like new. Power’s country and folk inflected songs strike a wide range of moods. And the performances of the entire cast, all of whom sing and play instruments, are warm and vital. I certainly didn’t expect it, but of all the many versions of Dickens’s story I’ve seen this is the first that is truly moving.

In Garratt’s adaptation Scrooge (Randy Hughson) was born in Goderich, county seat of Huron county, and is a mill owner whose success has led him to buy up all the flour mills from from the Ambassador Bridge to Tobermory. The The mills are all painted “Scrooge and Marley Mills Co.” Even though Scrooge’s partner Marley died years ago, Scrooge has been too cheap to paint over his name. As in other Christmas Carols, Scrooge expects his assistant Bob Crachit (Greg Gale) to work on Christmas Day. Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Graham Hargrove) invites his uncle yet again to Christmas dinner and yet again is refused.

Three times we see Scrooge at home flipping through channels on the television, and in a great touch, the first time skipping It’s a Wonderful Life, the second skipping Miracle on 34th Street and the third skipping The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. After each attempt to relax, Scrooge has a supernatural visitation. The first is Marley’s Ghost weighed down by chains and the company’s ill-gotten profits leading to the arrival of the spirit of Christmas Past (Graham Hargrove again). The second is Christmas Present (Marion Day) and the last is Christmas Future (Graham Hargrove again). When Scrooge talks of how he and Marley built their business, Marley’s Ghost rebukes him by saying Scrooge should be building the community.

Christmas Past shows Scrooge two scenes cleverly altered by Garratt. In the one we learn that Scrooge’s parents always left him and his sister Fanny alone over Christmas. His favourite memory of that time was Fanny’s reading him Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Happy Prince” (1888). The key point is that in Wilde’s story the statue of the Prince would rather have his friend the bird pluck out one of his eyes than leave a young artist to starve. Garratt thus shows that in his youth Scrooge’s favourite story was about an extreme act of charity.

The second innovation is brilliantly apt. Rather than having Scrooge meet his beloved Belle (Alicia Toner) at Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, Garratt has them meet at a barn dance. Adding in some local history Garratt has the music at the dance broadcast by the radio station CKNX in Wingham (an actual station) with Mr. “Doc” Cruikshank (Marek Norman again), the name of the actual founder of the station, as announcer. The station began by promoting the music of local artists, and Garratt gives us an example in the form of the cowboy crooner Cactus Mac (Greg Gale again). After Scrooge’s realization of how love of money has overcome his love of humanity, we hear how Scrooge donated to numerous charities – all located in Huron County.

Garratt has ingeniously crafted the show so that it requires only seven performers, all of whom, except for Scrooge, play two or more roles and all of whom can sing and play instruments. This gives the show an intimate feeling perfectly suited to the Memorial Hall and presents the cast as an ensemble where everyone pitches in in both music and drama – a kind of model community of people helping people that the show is all about.

It’s great to see Randy Hughson who has played so many secondary roles at Stratford play a major role like he used to do in Toronto. Hughson lends Scrooge a far greater dramatic range than is usually the case in the role. As the Scrooge we first meet he is an irascible workaholic for whom holidays mean nothing. Right from the start Hughson lets us know that Scrooge is not so much angered by Christmas itself as with the interruption it causes. And, as we soon see, Scrooge hates such interruptions because they allow him to think about his past personal losses and mistakes. This approach makes much more sense of the role and already shows us why Scrooge will be capable of change later on.

After the visit of Christmas Future, Hughson plays Scrooge as a man completely crushed by what he has seen. I’ve seen no Scrooge more fully mortified and humbled as Hughson’s is when he visits the Crachits to apologize. When Mrs. Crachit (Emily Toner again) is ready to lay into Scrooge, Hughson already has us on Scrooge’s side. We see that verbal abuse from her would be like berating a sick and wounded dog.

Garratt has Greg Gale take on the role of Narrator which Gale fulfils admirably by immediately establishing a concerned but genial tone. As Bob Crachit, Gale is both pitiably and amusingly meek, carrying out a secret thermostat war with Scrooge about the office temperature but giving up, zipping up his turtleneck sweater and putting on his down jacket to do his work. As the Bob Crachit of the future, Gale’s mourning for the death of Tiny Tim is heartbreaking. Garratt has him repeat the words “just one more day” and this sentiment will resonate with anyone who has ever suffered a personal loss.

On a completely different note, Gale also plays the singing cowboy Cactus Mac and is hilarious in imitating all the quirks that such performers have. The song itself is amusing about “the prettiest girl this side of Holmesville” and it even ends with an outbreak of yodelling. As a musician he plays both acoustic and electric guitars and even a trombone.

Marek Norman, best-known as a composer of Canadian musicals, is frighteningly good as the Ghost of Marley. Norman is also the ensemble’s chief pianist and the honey-toned Doc Cruickshank.

Marion Day plays both an affecting Fanny who tenderly cares for her little brother Scrooge and a boisterous Christmas Present dressed in crinolines with a lit-up hemline. While her main instrument is the accordion, Graham Hargrove’s is percussion and he is especially effective on the bodhrán and rhythm bones. Making his acting debut, Hargrove makes Fred a sensitive young man who is still ready to forgive Scrooge’s many faults. He also conjures up an air of mystery as Christmas past with his strong presence. Alicia Toner proves not only an exciting fiddler but a fine actor as both the disappointed Emily Crachit and as Belle, who is shaken when she finally sees Scrooge turn away from her to tend to business.

Jonah Aaron Manley, a twelve-year-old who was born blind, plays Tine Tim and is the first blind actor ever to perform at the Blyth Festival. He plays Tiny Tim as a boy who has been stricken with a serious disease that requires constant oxygen therapy. When Manley sings the song Tim has written as present for his parents and accompanies himself on the piano, he sings with such innocence and such feeling that you may find tears welling up in your eyes.

While Garratt’s adaptation still has Christmas as its theme, its great virtue is to look at the more general implications of Dickens’s story. Garratt emphasizes the need for all people to recognize their common humanity. The show underscores a point that too many adaptations forget that helping other people is not just an activity we somehow discharge at Christmas. Rather, the whole thrust of the show is that helping others less fortunate than we are is part of the essential altruism that defines us as human beings, a virtue we too easily lose sight of. 

A Huron County Christmas Carol is fun, full of great songs and filled with the warmest possible mood, but it also digs more deeply into what Dickens’s story is all about than other adaptations I’ve seen. If we feel a tear well up it’s because the show reminds us to cherish the spark of goodness we have in us that helps us through a life that is never long enough.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Marion Day, Alicia Toner, Graham Hargrove, Greg Gale as Cactus Mac, Randy Hughson and Marek Norman; Alicia Toner and Greg Gale as Emily and Bob Crachit, Jonah Aaron Manley as Tiny Tim and Randy Hughson as Ebenezer Scrooge. © 2019 Terry Manzo.

For tickets, visit blythfestival.com.