Not so long ago the importance of helping the less fortunate seemed a given. But it appears these days, with the orange-haired maniac beating the “every man for himself” drum with Led Zeppelin-esque- ferocity, it needs to be emphasized more than ever.
The Belfry Theatre’s A Christmas Carol has become a semi-annual tradition — and with good reason. This show is bold, theatrical and emotionally fulfilling. The company’s artistic director, Michael Shamata (who directs here), has created a superior adaptation that hits all the right buttons. We may tire of other Christmas entertainments such as The Nutcracker (let’s get the hook out for the Sugarplum Fairy) …. but this one we welcome every second year like an old friend.
In terms of production values, Christmas Carol is somewhat pared down — yet the show still seems sufficiently theatrical, even lavish . Charles Dickens’ bad-man-makes-good parable is presented in full redemptive Victorian glory. At the time time Shamata ensures the tale isn’t a sentimental Hallmark card; there’s an element of grit. For instance, Tiny Tim’s predicted demise is not just described — the poor dead duffer is seen laid out on a black casket while his shattered father describes the verdant beauty of the boy’s grave site (a truly Victorian sentiment if there ever was one).
When dealing with such a chestnut in modern times, there’s a temptation to provide an ironic wink to the audience. This can be fun ; however, cheap laughs can undermine the dramatic power of the original. Wisely Shamata resists this. The closest we get is a moment that absolutely works — in delivering the famous “God bless us, etc.” line, Tiny Tim (the cute Jude Culham-Keays) says to Scrooge “You say it” — and they end up sharing the honours.
As ever, a key to A Christmas Carol’s success is Tom McBeath, who plays Scrooge. McBeath is one of those rare actors with a unique style of his own. There’s something puckish, impish, even slightly giddy about his acting. Certain lines are delivered in unorthodox, sometimes surprising ways. We never know quite what to expect from him; perhaps because of this, his performances seem truly human.
On opening night McBeath presented Scrooge-the-baddie as being harsh and cruel as we could ever want him to be. Later, the reformed Scrooge bubbles with champagne-like vivacity — he seems positively demented with born-again goodness. Both sides of the character appear fully immersed in the hum of life; there’s no question this is a real person living in the moment.
The other lead , Gerry Mackay, takes a very different tact. Playing Jacob Marley as well as the Christmas spirits, Mackay offered a heightened, broadly theatrical performance — his is a much more abstract take. It’s in marked contrast to McBeath’s more intimate, more human approach; in a sense Mackay provides a neutral canvas for Scrooge’s portrait. For my taste Mackay’s acting seemed bit abstract at times, a bit cold — but he certainly captured the otherly worldly side of these strange beings.
The set is essentially a grand pillared doorway topped by angel sculptures and of course a clock. Overall it’s sparse look, yet theatrical cleverness provides the Christmas opulence we yearn for. One of the evening’s highlights is a wonderfully festive dance/decorating scene. Elsewhere, Scrooge and a Christmas spirit soar over the City of London, a piece of theatrical magic managed with a just stepladder and skyline cut-outs.
A Christmas Carol continues at the Belfry Theatre to Dec. 17.