Saturday, 10 December 2011

'Bah' said Scrooge, 'Humbug!'

No prizes for guessing what I've been to see! Simon Callow (that wonderful man again) is at the Arts Theatre, London, until January, and once again he is donning the mantle of Dickens; once again the man's thundering tones are to be heard echoing through Victorian London. But this time, we have no travelling cheap-jacks, no disillusioned dwarves (see this post)... this time we have Scrooge. Ebenezer Scrooge.
I will leave it to Mr C. Dickens himself to introduce you;
'Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.'
So there you have it. And of course you know him already! A Christmas Carol is trotted out at this time of year in so many households, that it really is a wonder we all don't know it off by heart. But still, I feel, it really never gets any older... the thing's 168 years old, and today, it was as alive as it's ever been for me. More so, in fact - I've rhapsodised about Callow's performance before, so I will only touch on it today - but he manages to capture the voice of the author so perfectly, and evokes such strong portraits while never skimping on his own intense performance, that I think if Dickens himself had walked into the Arts Theatre today, he would have been blown over at how his own oft-repeated, time-honoured words are being made to sound so fresh, so immediate.
A Christmas Carol is also, as well as being a classic festive tale, a ghost story; we have the three sagacious spirits, Christmas Past, Present and the really quite terrifying Future, come to warn the miserly Scrooge of his future. You would expect Callow, with Dickens' range of characters (including the ghosts) to leap from caricature to caricature; but his voice barely changed. This may sound like a detrimental comment, but trust me, it's far from it; Callow didn't need to change a thing. His physical presence and movement on the stage was enough; the dynamics that are usually there due to interaction between characters were all there within Callow's performance, and, of course, all in the text itself.
The minimal props (coat, chairs, and erm... fire...) that Callow manipulated himself were all it needed. Two sheets of gauze were used, one at the very back of the stage and one on an axis in the middle, and these were lit with different light depending on the scenes painted by Callow and Dickens. Gobos (silhouettes placed in front of lights to cast a shadow on the stage) showed us Scrooge's double-locked front door with the haunted knocker, and his own gravestone, chillingly placed in cold light at the back of the stage. Lights placed either side of the gauze helped conceal or reveal parts of the stage at key moments - with a clock appearing periodically to sound out the next hour of Scrooge's haunting... with the chime waking a napping member of my party - and Callow's turn as Marley (regrettably short) was made all the more spine-chilling by the cold, spectral spotlight cast on him; the spotlights' sudden switch from this to the warm, human light that encompassed Callow's Scrooge snapped us back from the phantoms' visit.
The sound effects were fantastic too; music was faintly heard for most of this hour-and-a-half long monologue (but by no means intruded on the story) and helped create the fantastic, almost tangible atmosphere.
I have one minor quibble; the appearance of the clock, and the changing of the lights, often happened abruptly... I found this a weeny bit distracting... perhaps fading them in and out and merging the colours would have helped to maintain the atmosphere that Callow had seemingly effortlessly created? Anyway, don't let this stop you from going, please. It really is a festive treat for all the family; I went with little ones ranging from 6 to 10 (hmm... 'little ones'... bit harsh on the two ten-year-olds!) and they all loved it and were captivated by it. I myself could watch Callow all day.
So you've got two ways to look at Christmas;
'Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!'
'God bless us, every one!'

I know which one I'd pick right now... I'm feeling incredibly festive after today's trip!
Merry Chrimbo!
West End Girl x


  1. There's no better story to get you in the festive spirit. Good write up. Enjoyed it thanks

  2. It wasn't me that was asleep! Despite the red wine

    A truly magical performance...which should be required viewing for every one who thinks Dickens is slow, heavy and dull. Callow brings it alive...brilliant way to start the Christmas season.