A Christmas Carol at NAC English Theatre Photographer: John Lauener / –
Bringing Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to the stage is a risky business. The story is as well known as that of Adam and Eve – indeed, there’s something of The Fall and subsequent Redemption in Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from innocent boyhood to miserly misery and finally into bliss – and finding a fresh interpretation of Dickens’s tale can be tough.
The NAC English Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol, newly adapted by director Jillian Keiley and starring Andy Jones as Scrooge, finds that fresh perspective and does so with élan.
At the centre of the production is Bretta Gerecke’s startling design. She’s cast the set, which is minimal to the max, in a cold, snowy white and done the same with costumes including wigs. There’s little to no colour in this world because there’s none in Scrooge’s wizened one, and Gerecke’s design choices reminds us that we are seeing the world through Scrooge’s chilly gaze. The vitality and warmth of the other characters in the story – and, of course, Scrooge’s own growing humanity as he visits Christmases past, present and yet-to-come – are what give this frozen world colour.
Michael Walton’s exceptional lighting design heightens Gerecke’s concept: pitilessly bright and spare one moment, it shifts to dim and ominous as Scrooge witnesses the murkiness of life without kindness.
However, Gerecke (and Keiley, since a designer helps capture the vision of a director) have needlessly complicated things. Before the show begins, audience members are handed textural items like costume sketches with a swatch of colourful material on them. The idea is that we are supposed to recall the vivid feel of these items when we see the stark white costumes on stage, thereby heightening the contrast between Scrooge’s sterile viewpoint and the fecund one of other characters.
Neither I nor my guest gave even a fleeting thought to those items as the show progressed, and it’s a safe bet few did. Sometimes concepts should remain just that.
What did work was the series of beautifully realized maquettes depicting locales in the story: the brilliantly coloured exterior of Scrooge’s home, for example. We saw these maquettes in the lobby before entering the theatre, and as the show progressed they were hung, one by one, above the stage, making vivid the contrast between Scrooge’s actual and potential worlds.
Dickens’s story is populated with richly realized characters, and this production follows suit. Andy Jones – the Newfoundland lad whose comic skills helped stamp such Canadian classics as CBC Television’s sketch comedy hit CODCO – is a convincing humbug at the start of the story, a fearful and increasingly regretful sojourner as he visits that trio of Christmases, and an infectiously giddy, joyful man in the great transformation that is the tale’s climax.
One can’t help but compare Jones during that transformative scene to Alastair Sim’s magnificent performance as Scrooge in the 1951 film adaptation of Dickens’s novella. Jones holds his own. What’s more, he’s given the role a twist by addressing the audience directly in keeping with the production’s emphasis on inclusivity, an inclusivity that’s not only rooted in the story itself – Scrooge’s sin being to shut the poor and others out of his life – but extends to having the visually impaired performer Bruce Horak and the deaf Jack Volpe as part of the production.
Keiley has also chosen her other performers well. Marc Béland, for instance, creates an affecting Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former, greedy business partner, in a very scary scene that kicks off Scrooge’s journey to renewal. Chris Ralph, always a generous actor, is a buoyant Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former employer. Nigel Shawn Williams give us a gentle Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s hard-done-by clerk, and young Sébastien Cimpaye was an appealing Tiny Tim on opening night (Cimpaye and another actor alternate in the role).
“Mankind was my business,” says Jacob Marley at one point, underscoring his and Scrooge’s failure to attend to that business. This production gives us mankind in full colour.
Continues until Dec. 31. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets,