Wednesday, 9 December 2020

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol at the Watermill Theatre

The Watermill Theatre has risen to the unique challenges of programming a theatre and operating it safely in 2020 with an exceptional year mounting five new productions and attracting over 3500 to its tiny venue. The normal capacity of just over 200 has been reduced to just 73 by social distancing and bizarrely you can only drink in your theatre seat and not at a table in the bar under the latest Government regulations but it has navigated these issues with great skill and ingenuity. Bloodshot, Camelot and Lone Flyer provided brilliant memories to the warm welcoming reception you always get there. The Christmas offering is a two handed version of the classic A Christmas Carol adapted for their stage by the playwright in residence Danielle Pearson with a reduced rehearsal schedule and just two socially distanced actor-musicians playing 19 different characters. Could it match the previous outstanding shows? 

Simply staged by designer Isobel Nicholson with dark brick walls with two windows through which shadow puppets are illuminated to add to the cast and a minimum props of a desk (which doubles as Scrooge's Bed), a stool, a ladder and a washing line, the production relies on the two performers to conjure up in our imagination the various scenes. Of course, it is a familiar story with many classic past versions including film versions with Alistair Sims (1951), Albert Finney (1970), and Michael Caine (1992) all playing Scrooge which influence our own imagination as they cast a shadow over any new version. 

Pearson solution is to use a narrator (Tilly Mae Millbrook) to tell the story and play most of the characters with the other cast member, Pete Ashmore, playing Scrooge including his younger self. It places a large burden on Millbrook with long monologues and multi-rolling with quick changes of character. She rises to the challenge magnificently and engages the audience from her first appearance with her sparkling eyes roaming around the auditorium. A red woollen scarf and she becomes Bob Cratchit, a top hat and tailcoat she is Fred, the nephew, a shawl and she is a Scottish Tilly asking for a donation, a coat covered in chains and she is an Irish Marley, a fan and she is Belle, Fezziwig's goddaughter. Each character is simply and effectively created. 

However the heart of the story is the impact these people have on the central character Scrooge on Christmas Eve with a strong message that it is never too late to change your ways and be kinder to those less fortunate. Ashmore presents Scrooge as an angry, confident, bitter man dismissing all he meets in the name of good business. The production avoids the traditional portrayal of the old mean miser in a white night cap with a younger more dynamic version but nevertheless the transformation to the caring generous benefactor is just as dramatic and moving.

The three spirits that open his eyes to the world and his failures are cleverly portrayed. The Spirit of Christmas Past is a child's face on a lantern in a veil , the Spirit of Christmas Present looks like a character from a mummers play and the Spirit of Christmas future is the most eerie like a dementor from Harry Potter suspended from the flies. Indeed there are several creative solutions to the portrayal of characters like Tiny Tim, and his brother and sister and Marley's face in the door knocker. The scene where Scrooge finds Tiny Tim has died is beautifully and touchingly played and we feel the change overcoming the miser. 

Director, Georgie Staight does a very good job managing the social distancing, adding magical touches and integrating well known Christmas tunes into the action with Ashmore on violin and Millbrook on piano and clarinet. There is a slight sense that with another week of rehearsals they could have polished up the magic and illusion to create a more spookily spine tingling production or fine tuned Scrooges' transformation but it would be miserly to focus on the faults and instead we should celebrate what they have achieved and take the words spoken from the stage which call on us all to look out for others less fortunate than ourselves as a call for action. For that it deserves four stars and I can't wait to find out what they have planned for 2021.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row D | Price of Ticket: £23
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