Wednesday , August 4 2021

Theatre Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the Guildford Shakespeare Company and Jermyn Street Theatre

With Christmas around the corner, it’s time to catch a performance of the beloved Charles Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol. It’s always a delight to revisit miser Ebenezer Scrooge and see him relearn the joy and generosity to be had at Christmas. I recently tuned in through Zoom for a co-production by the Guildford Shakespeare Company and Jermyn Street Theatre in the United Kingdom. This version was adapted by Naylah Ahmed and directed by Natasha Rickman.

The main cast includes Jim Findley (Pitching In, Silent Witness) as Scrooge, Penelope Keith (To the Manor Born, Penelope Keith’s Coastal Villages) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present (I, Claudius, Hamlet). Paula James (Romeo & Juliet, Thy Eternal Summer), Robin Morrissey (Oh, Geno!Mindhorn), and Lucy Pearson (The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet) round out the principal cast, each playing several characters throughout the program.

James portrays Mrs. Cratchitt, Mrs. Fezziwig, Charity, and Clara. Morrissey was Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchitt, Mr. Fezziwig, Topper, and Old Joe. And Pearson appears as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, as well as Belle and Belinda. It’s easy to follow their character changes from scene to scene because of their costumes and use of different voices, and their character name on Zoom is always updated.

I liked all three younger actors’ performances very much. James exercises a great number of facial expressions for her different characters, from feisty Mrs. Cratchitt to scared Charity. Morrisey wins sympathy for Bob’s plight with his soft tone, as well as a few laughs for his howling ghost of Jacob Marley. It’s obvious Pearson’s Belle is talking to a propped up black jacket at the side of the frame, representing young Scrooge’s arm and shoulder, but the believability and heart are still there in the scene.

Image of Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present
Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present

I will be honest: Online productions have been largely hit-or-miss for me. It’s very difficult to capture the spirit of live theatre on an online platform. However, I was quite impressed with how fresh, creative, and interactive GSC and Jermyn Street Theatre’s take was. The close-up shots of the actors and the intensity of their acting when they reached toward the camera made me feel as if I were right there with them in each moment. There’s also a curtain call at the end of the show so that you can applaud all of the actors.

The optimal viewing mode in Zoom is Speaker View. It allows you to see the actor who is speaking, but also see two or three small panels of Morrissey, Pearson, and James silently gesturing to indicate movement on the street or for an upcoming party scene. If you like, you can switch to Gallery View to see how your fellow audience members are reacting.

Findley encapsulates the full range of Scrooge’s journey adeptly, a growl or a stern “Humbug!” at everyone, his astonishment towards the Ghosts, and the sorrow and contrite heart he exhibits by the end. With Zoom close-ups, it’s perfectly clear what his harsh reactions are to people he mocks as well as his dismay when he realizes others ridicule and laugh at him. I would certainly like to attend a theatre and see him perform in person someday.

I had thought that simulating Scrooge’s physical journey might be difficult with Zoom, but I was mistaken. Beth Mann uses a variety of lively virtual backgrounds and filmed content to represent the location changes. One of my favorites is when Findley sways slightly in the frame while the street and fog are behind him, as if Scrooge is walking down the street to his house. Moving backgrounds are also utilized for Keith and Blessed’s scenes as they guide Scrooge along.

Image of Penelope Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past
Penelope Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past

The technical team also renders the Ghosts successfully, putting Keith and Blessed’s faces in black and white. Both actors are always a delight to see on television and film. In this A Christmas Carol, Keith brings a wonderful sense of indignation, as when she exclaims to Findley’s Scrooge, “I am not a Sir!” There are plenty of laughs and chuckles to be had with her sarcasm, but her sensitivity towards Scrooge further invites the audience to sympathize with him. Blessed follows after Keith with his booming voice and laugh. We even get a powerful roll of the letter “R” when he utters “Ridiculous!” at Scrooge.

I would say that the success of this production relies heavily upon two types of shows. The first would be children’s television programs, because some of the show lines would be questions to the audience. For example, did we think Scrooge would be okay in the end? Even if you know the story by heart, it’s cute to be asked the question and respond “Yes” from the comfort of your living room alone or with family. There’s even a sing-along element later, as the lyrics of “We Three Kings” appear while Brian Blessed sings, inviting you to join in.

The second influence I can see is the pantomime or panto tradition, which is a fairy tale show with songs, comedy, and interactive segments, very popular in the U.K. Jones and Morrissey do an excellent job as the Fezziwigs, inviting the audience members to stand and follow the dance steps they call out as lively fiddle music plays. The technical team behind the scenes selected seven or eight Zoom panels of folks at home trying the steps.

This production of A Christmas Carol from the GCS and the Jermyn Street Theatre is quite a marvel to watch. The show was initially slated to run through December 27, but additional performances have been added through December 30. It has a solid cast, an expertly done mix of technical tricks, and a fabulous element of audience participation. If you are looking for one live Christmas show to see, sing with, and even dance to, this would definitely be my pick.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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