Charles Dickens' classic story returns to Soulpepper to ring in the holiday season.
The wooden huts at the Distillery District’s Christmas Market are up now, their owners peddling holiday gifts like gourmet alcoholic eggnog, detailed artisanal ornaments, and thick, hand-knit scarves. White lights hang overhead. A ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a giant decorated tree brighten the area. Meanwhile, just a little ways down Tank House Lane, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The Distillery is basically Christmastown.
A Christmas Carol goes with the holiday season like hot chocolate goes with marshmallows, cold wind goes with drippy noses, and “Bah” goes with “Humbug!” And this year—which happens to mark Dickens’ bicentenary—would seem especially amiss without the story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his visits from four wise ghosts on Christmas Eve. Especially so when Soulpepper Theatre delivers such a fine production, adapted and directed by Michael Shamata.
First staged at Theatre New Brunswick in 1990, the adaptation is a straightforward take on the classic story. Don’t expect a lot of jarring stylistic choices here—although Julie Fox’s ghostly costumes add a welcome bit of frivolity, and two dancer narrators help build the show’s sense of fantasy and the supernatural.
Instead, the intrigue lies in the characters: Scrooge, his nephew Fred, his clerk Bob Cratchit, his deceased partner Jacob Marley, and the little scamp Tiny Tim. John Jarvis, who takes on the roles of the paranormal players, introduces the show as an eerie ghost story. There’s an unexpected amount of humour thanks to Kevin Bundy and Maggie Huculak’s Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, not to mention Joseph Ziegler, whose comedic timing as Scrooge pays off during both his most frugal and his most festive moments. But there are also more than enough sorrowful scenes from the Cratchit family and Scrooge’s past (which sometimes heavy-handedly use the show’s elementary-aged cast members to tug your heartstrings) to put the play squarely in the category of tragedy.
With many returning actors reprising acclaimed roles from years past, the scenes flow like well-oiled machines. Ziegler as Scrooge, Oliver Dennis as Cratchit, and Huculak as Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber are particularly strong.
But what helps is our proximity to the actors at work. The last time Soulpepper used a theatre-in-the-round configuration was for the bare-bones children’s musical romp Alligator Pie. This time, families are invited to surround the larger George Baillie stage, which is efficiently used for ghost exits and entrances, busy street scenes, decorating and dancing at the Fezziwig Christmas party, and giving the audience an especially sad fly-on-the-wall feeling during Belle (Sarah Wilson) and young Ebenezer’s (Matthew Edison) breakup.
Now that we’re celebrating Dickens’ 200th birthday, it’s something to say that A Christmas Carol still hasn’t lost its meaning among contemporary audiences. And it’s really something to say that it even brings to mind recent news, like Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the latest U.S. presidential election. Obama may have come out on top of that particular clash of the classes, but it’s clear we’re still a long way from making Dickens’ utopia of giving and selflessness a reality.
This article originally listed the incorrect name for the show’s director, Michael Shamata, and has now been corrected.