Online via Jermyn Street Theatre and Guildford Shakespeare Company
Reviewed – 19th December 2020
“The spirit of Christmas present may have taken a holiday this year, and while this show doesn’t quite lure it back, it does remind us of our Christmases past”
On the day that Christmas was effectively cancelled, it is perhaps a natural reaction to want to seek refuge in some sort of seasonal escapism. ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ or ‘Bad Santa’. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is another annual favourite. Something comfortingly familiar and predictable. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” fits the bill perfectly. Written during a time when the British were re-evaluating themselves, its themes of transformation and redemption inspired, if not created, the aspects of Christmas we have grown to love; including family gatherings, festive food and drink, games and a communal generosity of spirit.
In the absence of that, the Guildford Shakespeare Company with Jermyn Street Theatre, are beaming their live, staged version of the story via Zoom, which allows a degree of audience participation. The technology, born of necessity back in March, still feels a little underdeveloped, but it does let the curtain rise on productions that would otherwise remain locked away in the dark.
Naylah Ahmed’s faithful adaptation pulls no surprises. We all know the story, which is its selling point, along with the two names in the cast – Penelope Keith and Brian Blessed who play the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present respectively. Keith displays her signature imperious disdain for the unreformed Scrooge with a deadpan, but slightly apologetic, sense of humour (“I am not a sir, sir!”), while Blessed’s distinctly unapologetic performance plays up to his own caricature. They are both a formidable and colourful presence. Jim Findley, as Ebenezer Scrooge, fails to react accordingly, and doesn’t seem to be too distraught that his night is disturbed by these uninvited and foreboding spirits.
Rallying round, though, are the three multi-rolling cast members who pick up the remaining characters. Robin Morrissey’s versatility leapfrogs from his Jacob Marley to Bob Cratchitt to Mr Fezziwig with ease, accompanied by the sparkly eyed Paula James as Mrs Cratchitt, Fezziwig and others. Paula James, along with Lucy Pearson, who has her own hamper full of characters, bring a lightness of touch to what is a fairly stolid and dependable narration.
Despite the commitment of the cast, they seem unsure as to who the audience is. Director Natasha Rickman seems to be steering them, perhaps against their will, towards a younger crowd. The sense of enjoyment is prevalent but at the expense of the magic and awe that this tale should inspire. The show features children from the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s drama clubs, in rotation, as the Cratchitt children, and it is a delight to see the relish with which the three young ensemble cast dive into their roles.
The spirit of Christmas present may have taken a holiday this year, and while this show doesn’t quite lure it back, it does remind us of our Christmases past and give us hope for those yet to come. But we want to toast the future with effervescence and this ‘Christmas Carol’ doesn’t have the sparkling warmth to uplift us fully. But ‘Humbug’ to that. The run is already sold out online so don’t listen to this old Scrooge.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Ciaran Walsh
A Christmas Carol
Online via Jermyn Street Theatre and Guildford Shakespeare Company until 27th December
“a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances”
Can The Tempest—a play full of echoes of Shakespeare’s imminent retirement from a rich and successful theatrical life—be played in a small theatre, and on a pocket handkerchief sized stage? It turns out that it can. It can, that is, if you have Michael Pennington for your Prospero, supported by a cast of talented actors speaking with understanding of a text that contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. And it should, if you have a director (Tom Littler) who knows how to put on big plays in small spaces.
You might be forgiven for being sceptical. This Tempest demands work from the audience, beginning with a search to find the venue among all the clothing establishments in Jermyn Street, long the haunt of London’s haute monde. But when you eventually discover the modest entrance, near Waterstones, and descend into the performance space, you will be charmed. The stage is literally tucked into a corner, and designers Neil Irish and Anett Black make the most of it by creating a wall of curving shelves that contain all the flotsam and jetsam of Prospero’s past life as Duke of Milan. Add to that a couple of curtains to create additional spaces, and you can conjure up an enchanted isle quite effectively. Black and Irish were inspired by the experiences and art of Gauguin in Tahiti in the design—hence a lovely sketch of distant vistas on one of the curtains, and a medley of different cultural influences in the costume designs as well. Ariel’s costume and make up stands out in this respect. The costumes are all cleverly made from bits of cloth that could have been washed up from the shipwreck that brought Prospero and his daughter Miranda to the island. Add to that William Reynolds’ lighting design, haunting music and sound by Max Pappenheim (always essential in The Tempest), and you see an unexpectedly rich canvas on which the production has been created. But this is not easily apparent. You have to take the time—to look, and to listen—to all the island’s voices.
Watch for several innovations. The opening scene of the storm at sea that brings Prospero’s enemies to his shore is cut—instead it is Prospero who speaks the lines while holding a ship tossing and turning in his hands. It’s an effective way of emphasizing the fact that Prospero is a magician who has conjured up the storm. When Miranda enters, the audience is as ready as she is, to hear the story of how father and daughter arrived on the island. There is some judicious doubling. Tam Williams plays both Caliban and Ferdinand—and it works because Williams plays Caliban with a white canvas hood over his head. This device makes Caliban an oddly sympathetic character right from the start, and Williams’ skilled performance means that it takes a while to realize that one actor is playing both roles. Peter Bramhill doubles as Sebastian, Ferdinand’s uncle, with the comic role of Trinculo. Richard Derrington doubles as Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, with the drunken butler Stephano. It is a treat to see Lynn Farleigh take on the role of Gonzalo, and she brings a rare clarity and power to his lines.
Whitney Kehinde, as Ariel, is a wonderful sprite with just the right amount of enthusiasm for her work, coupled with fear that Prospero will not honour his promise and release her when her tasks are done. Kehinde is a genuine triple threat and a talent to watch. In fact, the only major weakness in this production is the lack of chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda, despite the best efforts of Tam Williams (without a hood) and Kirsty Bushell (Miranda). And it is the greatest pleasure to watch Michael Pennington, as Prospero, literally hold the whole production in the palm of his hand. He manages to bring off both the power and vulnerability of the role in ways that allow us to maintain sympathy for the character, while questioning Prospero’s more morally dubious actions.
For clarity of insight into Shakespeare’s last great play, take a chance on the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production. It’s a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances.