In December and January, it’s customary for theatres to feature A Christmas Carol in their winter line-ups. Charles Dickens’ story, published 175 years ago, follows miser Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. His deceased business partner Jacob Marley arrives in chains, warning him that the same fate could befall Scrooge if he doesn’t mend his ways. With stage adaptations of this classic abounding, how can one narrow it down and decide what to see? Should all we throw up our hands and stay safe by streaming that sure bet, A Muppet Christmas Carol? By no means!
My top choice in the London theatre scene is A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square. Directed and designed by Tom Cairns, this production is a one-man show starring Simon Callow. Callow’s performance in previous runs of this show have been widely lauded, resulting in a 2018 stage-to-film adaptation. The actor is well-suited equally to the roles of narrator, Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas ghosts, and so on. A Dickens expert, Callow is perfect for the role, not only for having performed as Dickens in other plays but also for having two books about Dickens under his belt.
To be honest, I was initially skeptical at the idea of a single actor portraying so many roles. Executing a very good version of A Christmas Carol with many actors is already quite an ordeal. Cairn’s adaptation also relies on an astonishingly bare-bones set design, beginning with chairs stacked and wrapped with Christmas lights on either side of the stage. A translucent screen stands erect in the middle of the stage, in front of a back wall where city backgrounds appear periodically.
However, my doubts were readily dispensed once Callow emerged, dressed in corduroy trousers, a dark coat, and a grayish scarf. He recounted and acted out the familiar tale of Scrooge’s path to redemption one fateful Christmas Eve in a fashion that could be as legendary as Dickens’ own public readings. Callow slides from narrator into the voices of characters such as hardened Scrooge, jovial nephew Fred, and cautioning Marley with an ease and variety that made it clear which individual he was at a given moment. These shifts were beautifully accentuated by his posture, whether he trembled as a cowering figure or towered as a giant Christmas spirit. There was a special vibrant glow in his face and a light in his eyes. Thus, the intensity of his expressions as he reacted lent themselves well to making you believe Scrooge truly sees the images that the narration and dialogue conjure up.
In effect, we don’t need the fancy physical trappings of the stage at all. Instead, lights in red, green, and blue are sufficient to capture the right mood, whether it’s spectral eeriness or a joyful party. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound effects are also simple, reminding me of the artistry involved in radio dramas. The translucent black screen is an excellent touch as well. It’s capability to revolve is cleverly utilized periodically to indicate new physical spaces, as when Scrooge steps into other rooms in his house.
Callow proves innovative in his use of the chairs stacked on the stage, shifting their configurations to illustrate room layouts. Chairs even dictate when Callow needs to change to another character, which he handles with aplomb to depict Fred’s boisterous Christmas party. Those character changes were among some of the quickest, amusing and dynamic that I’ve seen in a while in theatre.
In my view, the biggest challenge in this play is how to portray the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future with the same actor. Again, rudimentary stage tricks are employed to carry this out. For Christmas Past, an echo is added to Callow’s voice. Christmas Present is a towering giant to start with, Adam Povey’s brilliant lighting directed at Callow so as to create a large shadow behind him. For Christmas Future, undoubtedly the most terrifying visitor to Scrooge’s chambers, illumination or lack thereof provides the solution yet again. Darkness envelops Callow as he adopts a firm and menacing stance for the noiseless and final spirit.
I highly recommend Simon Callow’s solo performance of A Christmas Carol as part of your time closing out the holiday season. His storytelling and acting technique expertly weaves in the humor, drama, and magic encompassed in Scrooge’s path from a “Bah, humbug” miser to generous benefactor and community member. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself about to shed a tear near the end while Tiny Tim’s fate seems up in the air. The play closes on January 12.