A Christmas Carol – Assembly Roxy

From the Novel by Charles Dickens

Directed by Angela Harkness Robertson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Puppets, cartoons, re-visionist history, musicals, futuristic, Bill Murray: filmmakers and playwrights have endeavoured to re-tell Charles Dicken’s tale of redemption and guilt for decades. A Christmas Carol, The quintessential festive ghost story of the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visits from the deities of history – spectres of the past, present, and future, come to offer guidance on his foul ways and less than charitable actions. First published in 1843, and nearly 180 years later, many have failed to heed its message.

Even when performed with insight into remaining faithful to the tale often comes with changes for audiences. And there are few production companies with which it would be safe to handle a stricter telling of the story. The respected Edinburgh grassroots Theatre Company The Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group is one such company.

Capturing the grimness and concentration in the darker aspects of Dicken’s intentions, Angela Harkness Robertson’s direction channels the Victorian spiritual elements of ghostly horror into the telling. While not entirely stripped back, utilising a tremendously effective thrust staging within the Assembly Roxy main hall, A Christmas Carol follows the original tale chiefly to the letter. Harkness Robertson focuses on elements of performance, movement, and visual storytelling to differentiate their version to maintain something distinctive. 

Audiences can see roles how they were intended, none more so than the oft’ jolly and humorous Ghost of Christmas Present, stripped back to the sinister presence they belay – a reminder of Scrooge’s impending fate. Gregor Dickie offers a duality, relishing the role, bringing forth the expectant cheer of the spectre, but possessing a necessary weight in his admonishing of Scrooge, descending into an unhinged ghoul as his hour upon the earth ends.

Together with Chris Allan’s Ghost of Christmas Past, the pair makes the keenest remarks about how the journey undertaken by Scrooge is one of our own, a reflection of our avaricious and conceited nature. After all – we’ve been repeatedly warned to fear ignorance most of all, and yet we have not learned. And it’s a difficult job for John Lally’s Scrooge having to be cruel-hearted to this lot. Especially with such a strong sense of gleeful character coming from Timothy Bond’s Nephew Fred, or Alex Card’s Bob Cratchit.

For those wondering, all this talk of fear and fright – does the production offer a glimpse of hope for Scrooge and any recognition of the festive cheer with which we associate? Lashings of it. In truth, John Lally’s miserly Ebeneezer is more recognisable than most Scrooges and refrains from a caricature of greed. This tale’s Scrooge is less an outright antagonist and more a familiar sort. It’s a setback for some initially to witness a Scrooge played with a degree less icy-heartedness, though Lally is more than qualified to deliver a rich ‘Humbug’. No, the joy of Lally’s performance comes in tandem with the spectres – a mortal Scrooge who recognises their faults rather than playing to the expectations.

Preferring to root itself in the richness of Dicken’s language and imagery, one wouldn’t be surprised to find that The Grads had placed performance and character over visuals. And yet, how wrong, how surprisingly wrong we are. As Act one closes, J. Gordon Hughe’s superb balance of colour with their lighting design has carried much of the production’s imagery – crisp aetherial pahntom plains, or conjuring hell itself in the depths of funeral pyres, but in the dark a pair of eyes glint as the looming figure of The Christmas Yet To Come lumbers into view.

Regular EGTG performer Allan not only undertakes significant character performances, but has also contributes to the set dressings, props, and costumes (along with Grace Gilbert and Hilary Davies). And both their role and craft of Yet to Come is remarkable. Towering, near nine or so feet, the final spectre is perhaps the most infamous for its Psychopompian association with Death. All of the period costumes hit the mark, and the purity of the Phantoms, all beautifully performed by KS Dance Academy students, offer both a gentle break from the dialogue-heavy scenes and aesthetical transitions as they emulate the ‘flight’ Scrooge takes with the Spirits. The only blip breaking the otherwise tranquil or dread-filled atmosphere comes from issues of pacing for scene changes, causing performers to wait silently as the dedicated and often rushing stagehands do their best to switch all over. They provide a commendable part of the cast but could do with becoming streamlined and a touch quieter behind the curtains.

A communal production, the heart and sincerity is often found within the women of Dicken’s tale, making up for their underwritten roles. Making performances entirely their own, Alice Pelan, Beverley Wright, and Heidi Fieldhouse all bring life to famous characters with some choice accents and emotional performances. Amber Lipman delivers a more stoic and grounded Belle who recognises the escape she has had away from Scrooge, while Grace Gilbert offers a branch to the crowds as the Narrator, offering much of the necessary humour and charm bookmarking this sombre tale.

From entering with flickering streetlamps to the cast’s chorus performance of period carols, mingling among the originally composed pieces from Musical Director Dug Campbell, The Grads Christmas Carol captures both the sobering themes of the tale and the ghostly appeal which has carried it for generations. A triumph of theatrical storytelling, with firm roots in tradtion and a canny eye for visual. 

A Triumph of Theatrical Storytelling

A Christmas Carol runs at The Assembly Roxy until December 3rd.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Jane Purves

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