By Courtney Leigh Church, Dec. 11.
In the spirit of Christmas traditions, Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” opens for a second holiday season at London’s Grand Theatre.
Dennis Garnhum’s adaptation of the classic novella opens on an eerie cemetery in Victorian London where Jacob Marley (Patrick Monaghan) will be laid to rest. Before the pallbearers lower him into the ground, however, Marley’s spirit escapes from his coffin and flees from the scene. Seven years pass before he makes his return. Wrapped in the chains of his moral misdoings, Marley appears before his friend and business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jan Alexandra Smith), to warn of the afterlife to come lest she change her selfish ways.
Visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past (Jahlen Barnes), Present (Blythe Wilson), and Future (David Michael Moote), Scrooge is led on a journey of self-reflection over the course of Christmas Eve.
Taking the reins from original director Dennis Garnhum, Megan Watson’s “A Christmas Carol” is a near perfect adaptation, so much so that the play feels like a continuation of last year’s run rather than a second production. The dialogue is tight, the scene transitions smooth, and the chemistry between cast members is palpable, in part because many of them have returned for a second run.
The most notable reprisals are Blythe Wilson’s Spirit of Christmas Present, Sean Arbuckle’s Bob Cratchit, and Aidan de Salaiz’s Fred. Their generosity and enthusiasm shine brightly against the dreary, industrial backdrop of Victorian England.
Donning my Scrooge cap for a moment, however, this year’s rendition of “A Christmas Carol” feels much like the “shadows of the things that have been,” to use Dickens’s words. Everything from Allan Stichbury’s set design to the blocking, or movement, is near identical. While the returning cast members are as delightful this time around as the last run, the initial magic fades slightly as we know what to expect.
The pros and cons are as balanced as Scrooge’s books, but the production still comes out profitable.
The one major adaptation, of course, is Jan Alexandra Smith’s depiction of Ebenezer Scrooge. Her casting marks the first time a woman has portrayed Scrooge as a female character in Canada. Curmudgeonly, ambitious, and quick-witted, Smith makes a marvellous old miser. She has remarkable chemistry with the returning cast, most notably nephew Fred (de Salaiz) and the Spirit of Christmas Present (Wilson). Smith is joined by three younger Scrooges, Anna Bartlam, Riley DeLuca, and Ellen Denny, who, taken together, map Scrooge’s complex upbringing and coming of age.
Smith’s Scrooge is a welcome change in the second production of “A Christmas Carol,” but the effect of a female Scrooge is not as drastic as the Grand’s marketing suggests. That’s not to negate the importance of women playing traditionally male roles, a trend that is gaining traction in local venues like the Stratford Festival (“The Tempest”) and internationally such as Liverpool’s Everyman (“Othello”). Under Watson’s direction, though, Smith, Bartlam, DeLuca and Denny’s portrayals are very similar to those of Benedict Campbell, Nathaniel Keith and Justin Eddy last year. There are a few nods to the fact that Scrooge is a female businessperson, a peculiarity in 1840s London, yet the tone remains largely unchanged.
The one exception is a scene in which DeLuca’s Girl Scrooge envisions herself in an adventure narrative on a quest for treasure. Caught up in a tussle with pirates, she and her crew have a fantastically choreographed battle with their adversaries. Watching this scene unfold, I was struck by the power of her imagination and charisma of this small but intrepid girl, an image that carries even more weight if you consider traditional gender dynamics in Victorian England.
While the female Scrooge lacks the sensational effect of the advertised twist, this is also a positive lack—Smith is not an excellent Scrooge because she’s a woman, she’s an excellent Scrooge full stop.
The play’s communal atmosphere is in keeping with the Grand’s new Christmas tradition, and the play serves as a shared event within the community. The community focus is stronger still as the show is once again raising money for the London Food Bank through the Grand’s Humbug to Hunger campaign.
On one hand, “A Christmas Carol” feels like an imitation of the classic holiday films one comes back to each year. Whether this filmic feel works in live theatre is debatable. On the other hand, the second production, like the first, hits all the right notes and has the potential of becoming a Grand classic.
“A Christmas Carol”
The Grand Theatre
December 5 – 23
Purchase tickets online
Box office: 519-672- 8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.