In A Nutshell
Powerful and tender moments with some great performances, elevating Dickens’ text in this enchanting adaptation.
Charles Dickens’ tale synonymous with Christmas is given a musical make-over. Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser, is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghost to be given one last chance to change his tight-fisted ways or face eternal doom. Antic Disposition return to Middle Tempe Hall, where Dickens himself studied, with their acclaimed adaptation.
Book & Adaptation
There’s not much that can be said here that people don’t already know about the famous novella. It’s certainly hailed as one of Dickens’ most beloved and most subtly political of works, and has been a cornerstone of Christmas since it was published. In itself, it’s neatly paced with something new, surprising, and interesting at every turn resulting in a deep and incredibly human story that has endured for well over a century. Antic Disposition, or any other adaptation for that matter, need not make any alterations with regards to the narrative and text, and indeed none have been made here; any improvement or addition to the text is completely unnecessary. Dickens’ work is so excellent and succinct to the point that even the dialogue closely follows the original text itself in Antic Disposition’s version.
Whilst this adaptation postures itself as a musical, it’s more a play with music. Christopher Peake, Ben Horslen, and John Risebero’s songs merely colour the action rather than replace it, and no musical numbers are ever felt forced. They never get in the way or convolute the essence and pace of the story and are well placed and rationed. Where they work best, they spark moments of wonder, elevating this already familiar morality tale to find an almost fresh and new take on it.
Music & Lyrics
It’s difficult to call the musical numbers in the show “original”. What Peake, Horslen, and Risebero have done is re-appropriate well known Christmas carols and given them lyrics that compliment either the narrative action or the emotion of a scene. It’s a clever device that keeps a familiarity among the audience of Christmas that feels incredibly comfortable. Whilst the lyrics themselves aren’t high poetry, with more than a few predictable rhymes, they create an atmosphere and capture an essence of the book, whilst making them quite accessible for any younger audiences that might be present.
Stephen Peake’s music approached the show with almost a cinematographic mindset, with plenty of underscoring as well as songs to create a constant swell of atmosphere. Within this is an ambitious score with some incredibly rich arrangements, especially with regards to Peake’s choral writing. However, Peake’s fervour has led to some missteps. Particularly the reliance of grander orchestral sound created on synthesisers is something that the show could do without. Not only does this sound far from convincing, it jars against the more natural sound of the violin and cello he’s employed live, drowning them out and bullying them to the side. Furthermore, the sheer volume of the synth sound often eclipses the sound of the cast. The venue, a vast enough space as it is, is already acoustically challenging, giving actors a big enough run for their money in attempting to project unamplified into it without orchestral-electro being pumped into it.
However, these synth arrangements certainly demonstrate Peake’s wider ability for intricate orchestration. But without a larger ensemble, the choice of synth sounds is one that isn’t right for the venue and the production. This is best demonstrated in the fact that the parts of the score that work best is when it’s just piano, violin, cello, and chorus. Peake’s sumptuous arrangements don’t lose any lustre in this scaled-back setting, and is all the better for it being clearer and more natural.
But overall, it’s the score, when in it’s at it’s clearest, that provides some of the most beguiling and tender moments of the show. The rendition of “Silent Night” as The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge just how far reaching his mirth is, is a really beautiful and delicate sequence. Likewise, the scoring of the closeness and love of the Cratchit family really touches upon something heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Direction & Production
The decision behind putting this production on in such a grandiose space is a very easy one: it’s where Dickens himself studied for going into the legal profession, and also it’s appearance evokes the Gothic and lavish nature of the work itself. However, it does pose some challenges. The aspect of the production that overcomes these challenges the most is Tom Boucher’s lighting design. It’s well thought out and executed in lieu of the production being able to put in any significant set aside from a few props, effortlessly conjuring up everything from the warmth of the Cratchit household, to falling snow, or the supernatural and eerie glow of Jacob Marley.
The decision to hold the show at the entrance to the hall is a well made one, even though it makes it impossible for any audience member to make a late entrance/exit once the show has started. But it utilises the beautiful balcony and doorway providing an impressive backdrop for the show. Risebero’s additional awning sneaks itself in looking as if it’s been part of the hall all along and provides a nice demarcation of space at the back of the performance area which Horslen and Risebero, directing, use well when needed for tricks such as separating the outside of Scrooge’s offices from the inside. Yet, whilst the directors do well to try and ensure that everyone in the thrust space gets a good view of the action, some of the younger members of the cast can’t quite project as well meaning that, wherever you’re sat, you will miss some of the dialogue/lyrics, which is a bit of a nuisance.
The entire production is one that generally fits snuggly into the incredibly imposing and impressive hall. However, sometimes the show does feel a little swamped by its enormity. Sometimes, when characters traverse purposefully around its perimeter or when the cast get audibly lost in the chasm, you’re reminded of the space’s size rather than being compelled by the action going on in the small area of it. It’s certainly a show that would work wonders in a smaller space, but by transporting it away from Middle Temple Hall you would lose the otherwise spellbinding and unique setting that the show otherwise thrives off. For it’s faults, it’s a trade off that is the best punt given the sheer experience of seeing such a slick show in this tucked away London treasure.
Award-winning David Burt is the main pull here, and he really delivers upon his reputation. He plays Scrooge not just as bitter and withdrawn, but a miser with an snivelling ill sense of humour. It’s a mean and animated interpretation of the character, and one that really hooks you. Burt is possible the nastiest Scrooge I’ve seen. Yet, he manages to find time to play personal pathos during his character’s transformation, bringing a genuine sense of profound affect by the scenes the three ghosts play before him. At the end, he’s energetic and unbelievably babbling as the transformed man, bringing an inescapable and hilarious energy and cheer that so easily rubs off on the entire audience.
Other notable performances include David Anthony is a superb Ghost of Christmas Present: larger than life, bounding, and full of mirth. But most beguiling is the quick turn to being terse and condemning of Scrooge at points, bringing a surprising severe and complex side to the jolly giant of the piece.
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast are bubbly and revel in the piece, be they resurrecting a band of ghouls or becoming a scuttle of London townsfolk. But most impressive is that, together, they produce a colourful and luxurious choral sound that really compliments Peake’s excellence in musical writing.
A ambitious vision and a wonderful cast makes this a Christmas treat more tasty and filling than any mince pie. Peake’s score, when it works its best, really lifts Dickens’ famous tale. By doing so within such a gob-smackingly impressive building, Antic Disposition add an exclusive extra Christmas enchantment that you won’t find anywhere else.
A Christmas Carol plays at the Middle Temple Hall, London, EC4Y 9AT, until 30 December 214. Tickets are £30 – £40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.anticdisposition.co.uk.