Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Christmas Carol – a miserly loan shark’s night of revelation (Bright Umbrella at Sanctuary Theatre until 3 January)

Patrick Barlow rewrote the stage adaptation of 39 Steps in 2005, so it should be no surprise that his take on Dickens’ festive tale A Christmas Carol throws quick changes, discarded props, and puppets at a multi-roled cast of five.

The actors burst – and occasionally creep – in and out of at least nine entrances around the Sanctuary Theatre’s narrow stage as the audience are introduced to miserly loan shark Ebenezer Scrooge whose default behaviour is to squeeze the joy out of people no matter the season.

It’s Christmas Eve and Scrooge is having no truck with the carolling and revelry, feigning grief at the loss of his business partner Jacob Marley when it suits his purposes, and rudely declining his nephew’s persistent invitation to spend Christmas Day with his family.

But that night when the misanthrope goes to bed – dressed like Wee Willie Winky – he is visited by Marley and a troupe of wailing banshees. And so begins Scrooge’s descent into a self-reflective sleighride through three circles of his own personal hell.

Playing Scrooge, Glenn McGivern allows himself to be pulled, pushed, jumped on and even slapped as the ghosts wrestle with his conscience. And while the experiences may briefly cause Scrooge to ponder, Glenn snaps the character back to its stingy self and buckles down for the next visitation. Towards the end, there’s even a bit of gentle improv with the audience.

The obedient yet under-appreciated Bob Cratchit is played by Marina Hampton who also makes quite an entrance as Marley’s Ghost. Hampton provides a lot of the on-stage humour, reacting to Scrooge’s never-ending demands with clownlike gestures, and later gives life to the diminutive Tiny Tim puppet.

As Ghost of Christmas Past, Annina Watton cajoles Scrooge through witnessing the big moments in his life so far. After the interval, a rather sassy Ghost of Christmas Present sashays across the stage – a feather boa could quite naturally replace the rope! – as Christine Clark is well able to crank up the comedy. Soon it’s the turn of the faceless and demonic Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come with Declan King also playing Scrooge’s nephew Frederick.

This adaptation of A Christmas Carol is a pretty shouty piece, with lots and lots of banging and screeching, before calm descends for the show’s most tender moment as Bob Cratchit reads a bedtime story to his beloved son. Having been implored to “change while there’s still time” before resisting the ghosts’ revelations, Scrooge’s eventual redemption happens nearly instantaneously, an all-too-sudden attitudinal handbrake turn amid the play-within-a-play twist.

The Bright Umbrella cast under Trevor Gill’s direction has really got to grips with the irreverent script and delivers an entertaining and fast-paced, festive frolic. If anything, the levity in Barlow’s writing might require even more accentuated accent changes and flouncing around the stage, more flinging of snow, deliberate bumbling of props, eyebrow raising, and knowing nods to the heightened emotion and madcap action.

While the venue’s power problems on the night I reviewed denied the production many of the sound effects and all of the lighting changes that the company had planned, the show did go on and it didn’t feel like the performance was second class or that the audience had missed out.

A Christmas Carol continues at the friendly Sanctuary Theatre (on the junction of Castlereagh Street and the Albertbridge Road) until 3 January with matinee and evening performances.

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