Matthew Clarke enjoys a festive evening at Rocket Theatre Company’s first ever show, A Christmas Carol.
Rocket Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol offers a bold and unique adaption of the festive Dickens classic. Written and directed by Fraser Logue and produced by Monica Jones, this play lays a fresh foundation to a familiar story, pleasantly catching one off-guard with its tasteful subversion and reworking of the narrative’s core.
The opening scene pays homage to a familiar Dickensian setting: church bells and a dimly-lit stage intone the close of a late night’s work at the office of Ebenezer Scrooge (Tilly Owen), sitting cold and upright in an armchair upstage. Downstage, his clerk, Bob Cratchett (Adam Smith), toils under the gaze of both the audience as much as his employer. Upon rising, Scrooge’s presence on stage is immediately gripping and hostile, only diminishing when, in earnest, his aging business partner Jacob Marley (Aoife Walter) and his tyrannical Nurse (Megan Deans) enter stage left. A man, in line with the story, thought dead, Marley’s ensuing conversation foreshadows Scrooge’s later transformation as he reflects upon the true value of his money when at, as his Nurse defends, the brink of death.
From here, the play’s experimentation with the traditional plot becomes evident, as the Nurse – in addition to Scrooge’s Doctor (Laura Wilson) and his Nephew-turned-Priest Fred (Patrick O’Connell) – offer both insight and commentary into Scrooge’s past, present and future, unravelling consequently the origins of his signature decry of ‘bah humbug!’. Each proves unique in their stagecraft and experimentation with the plot, with the Nurse’s eerie and psychoanalytical voiceover dissecting episodes from Scrooge’s early career and fateful first love with Belle (Abby Donaldson). The anachronistic reference to Freud here in a mid-Victorian setting felt like a somewhat de trop namedrop, though still undoubtedly sets up this scene’s exposition to Scrooge’s fall from grace.
The second half the play begins to display the risks taken in storytelling in full force. The latent tensions at the home of the Cratchett’s opening the second half lend to some incredibly affecting and haunting dialogue, as Bob strives to assert himself as the bringer of holiday cheer against the odds and the challenge from his wife Anna (Meg Stockwell). Their daughter Martha’s (Sian Gibbons) later confiding in her father’s employer also offers some incredibly touching moments. The pathos which overarches these later scenes proves highly palpable, with the Doctor’s deadpan interjections cutting through the glimmers of holiday spirit with a dab of dark comedy, and the Priest’s compassionate closing words calling a fresh light on mortality and the role of charity.
The line of questioning Scrooge undergoes offers a refreshing portrayal of the man as a victim of circumstance. The tortured employee, the embittered lover, all removed from the hardships and reality of life beyond his office, alluded to throughout by the ‘institutions’ of workhouses and care homes. Tilly’s poignant performance reaches its apotheosis with Scrooge’s cry of ‘Why am I such a villain?’; a question which is left hanging and starved of consolation.
The play’s distancing from the almost cliché ‘dream-like ghosts’ found detracting from the play’s core does not completely succumb to realism. Instead, it materialises intermittently as the looming apparition of Death itself, silently looming over Scrooge as a foreshadowing of ensuing tragedy. Such a psychological apparition nods to our supernatural expectations from the plot alluded to at various points with Scrooge appearing as though he had ‘seen a ghost.’
The minimal nature of this production gives way to some incredibly effective staging: from Scrooge’s office – drawing out every ounce of his moments of fragility and coldness – to the home of the Cratchetts and the Church. The chaos of the dinner scene felt at moments a little overcooked, though the mania regardless nods to the uncomfortable delirium often witnessed at a time of year when the festivities quite often become a fever dream. The costume department’s melange of both Victorian-Esque and modern clothing also plays into the production’s merging with the present, always nodding to its sources yet drawing its setting and message somewhere closer to home.
Ultimately, what Rocket Theatre Company have offered is a fresh and thought-provoking reworking of a play often made stale by many a seasonal resuscitation. Where Dickens’ moral prescriptivism around the topics of faith and finance can often prove sickly and unpalatable to a modern audience, the risks taken here to refine the elucidation of its message and spirit, in the most part, prove incredibly effective. This unique production stands its ground this holiday season and is not to be overlooked.
A Christmas Carol will be playing at Saltwell Hall, Stephenson College, on 6th and 7th December at 7pm.
Image: Rocket Theatre Company