“Marley was dead: to begin with.” Quite possibly one of the most well-known opening lines in history, setting off what is definitely the most famous Christmas story in all literature. This being the festive season, there are various productions of the Dickens classic on offer, including different one-man versions (Martin Prest’s is a definite favourite). To that end, Simon Callow returns with his own one-man show, this time at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square.
The story of the “covetous old sinner” Scrooge is timeless: a man for whom Christmas is a “humbug” gets visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present & future in a bid to change his ways. The story was a way for Dickens to raise awareness of the plight of the poor – it also inadvertently settled the ideal of the Victorian Christmas in the popular imagination.
Callow’s version is semi-staged, with changing backdrops & a few props, as well as some music, sound effects & some different lighting styles. It is very theatrical in style, but also has the feel of a reading about it. This is good in that it has a ring of authenticity about it, however many voices are interchangeable – when characters are talking to each other this is ever so slightly problematic. There is some differentiation, though mainly for the Cratchit family. That being said, the gravitas Callow brings (being a renowned Dickens expert & enthusiast) cannot be ignored; he is a charismatic figure & uses his presence to great effect.
The show begins with God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen playing out, immediately setting the mood, along with a backdrop of a Victorian street and ‘snow’ falling as Callow enters. He lights a candle which remains for the entirety of the performance – on occasions this is the only light onstage.
In the middle of the stage is another screen, which swings round at times & is largely see-through – its movement is rather distracting, and it’s not really obvious what benefit it brings to the show. A story so simple, yet powerful in its message, doesn’t need gimmicks; a straightforward setting & a good storyteller is all that’s required. One very nice touch is the small fire that’s lit in Scrooge’s room when he locks himself in, as is Adam Povey’s lighting design.
Having said all that, this story is an absolute staple for the festive period – not only for the traditional scenes of merriment & feasting, but also as a reminder of how we should try to live our lives: “in the Past, the Present, and the Future”. This production is definitely the most accessible to anyone within easy reach of the capital over the Christmas holidays, so grab yourself a bowl of smoking bishop & head over to the theatre before the show closes. As the Ghost of Christmas Present says, “Come in! and know me better, man!”
My verdict? The ultimate festive tale effortlessly told by a master storyteller – a seasonal treat & must-see performance.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Arts Theatre (West End) until 7 January 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.