A Christmas Carol – Ensemble Theatre (NSW)
Written by Charles Dickens. Adapted by Hilary Bell.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli 25 Nov 2022 – 29 Dec 2022 Tickets: https://www.ensemble.com.au/shows/a-christmas-carol/
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has undoubtedly become synonymous with Christmas over the past hundred years since he first penned (quilled?) the ghost-filled story. Yet, its message and exuberance still rings true to our current climate. Theatre around the globe have performed Dickens’ classic in a whole variety of ways, and so the challenge has become how to keep it fresh and alive, especially when you don’t have the budget of a West End theatre company, or a government that invested in the arts overall. Luckily for the Ensemble Theatre, they’ve been gifted the present of writer Hilary Bell and director Damien Ryan to bring their latest offering of A Christmas Carol to Sydney audiences.
The theatre is transformed through Ailsa Paterson’s set design to become a family owned and operated theatre for a rag tag group of players who have, throughout the years, brought to audiences: pantomimes, dames and ghouls, and a smattering of Shakespeare along the way. It’s tongue and cheek, and self-aware and works superbly for the low-cost ingenuity found in the assortments of props, bells and mismatched clothing (Genevieve Graham) utilised throughout.
An aged mirror hides behind tall, white sheets that suspend down onto a wooden set with piano, bells (both instrument and actor) and gongs ready to be played. There’s a gorgeous sense of character in Paterson’s set with some hidden surprises silently waiting to be unveiled. This, coupled with Matt Cox’s lighting design, play as a secondary character to the story, with the lighting becoming essential to the creation of ghosts, tension and joy found in Dickens’ story. Sharp blackouts and illuminatingly blue spotlights isolate Scrooge throughout, whereas other warm smatterings of yellow and orange brighten the stage as if lit by a warm fire.
With musical director Daryl Wallis on an old oak piano for the duration of the performance, composer Phillip Johnston creates a festive atmosphere from the very start, welcoming audiences to revel in the beginnings of the Christmas spirit. Yuletide singalongs cajole the audience into the festive spirit before introducing each key player to consolidate the pantomime-esque version of A Christmas Carol that’s about to be performed.
As the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” himself, John Bell provides his steadfast skills as a veteran of the stage. He is perfectly believable as Ebeneezer Scrooge as he grunts and spits that well-worn phrase, “Hum Bug” at his victims. Hilary Bell’s adaptation brings new territory to Scrooge’s miserly and tight-fisted nature with added monologues that expunge notions of goodly tidings, love and family from Scrooge’s world and consolidate his idolatry of wealth.
Valerie Bader brings an immense amount of fun to each character she portrays, from Mrs Cratchit to Mrs Fezziwig, as she wanders up and down the isles showing an intimate familiarity with the text. Jay James-Moody’s Bob Cratchit harnesses comedic flair to heighten the pantomime traits established at the opening, whilst making your heart melt with his love for Tiny Tim – who here is played in puppet form. Anthony Taufa’s assortment of characters are all larger than life, but none more so than Christmas Present whose light-adorned crown and flowing green cape of holly demands attention. Emily McKnight offers an assortment of characters and a ballad or two throughout, but it’s her softness as she puppets Tiny Tim that wins the audience’s heart.
There are lapses in pacing throughout where the comedy established from the beginning and the innocently farcical use of props seemingly drops, crossing the threshold from tongue-in-cheek, to much too serious. Other bits of design, such as Christmas Future’s track wear outfit, offered up giggles from audiences, and not the good kind. Still, these lapses in aesthetic don’t tend to derail the overall quality of the production.
Ensemble Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is exuberantly joyful and goes down well like a glass of mulled wine. Proving that this story of ghosts, greed and compassion still has life in it, this is one to see as the festive season starts. Dickens and Hilary Bell send an important reminder that theatre audiences should wish the same life-changing epiphanies onto those with the most to give at this time of year.
TO KEEP UP WITH ALL THE LATEST REVIEWS, NEWS AND EXCLUSIVES, SIGN UP TO OUR MONTHLY NEWSLETTER NOW.
Author Charles Dickens Playwright Hilary Bell Director Damien Ryan Assistant Director Danielle Maas Musical Director Daryl Wallis Set Designer Ailsa Paterson Costume Designer Genevieve Graham Lighting Designer Matt Cox Composer Phillip Johnston Stage Manager Erin Shaw Assistant Stage Manager Vanessa Martin Costume Supervisor Evelyn Everaerts-Donaldson Puppetry Movement Consultant Emma De Vries Choreographer Shondelle Pratt
Cast includes Valerie Bader John Bell Jay James-Moody Emily McKnight Anthony Taufa
Understudies Abe Mitchell Billie Palin
COMMISSIONED BY ENSEMBLE’S LITERARY FUND