“two hours after the first internalised ‘humbug’ we’re all singing ‘Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas’ with the cast and feeling impressively jolly”
The first question is ‘Why?’ Why take on the challenge of Dickens’ mawkish seasonal classic, with its rich recipe of bustling streets, vivid characters and hovels packed with rosy-cheeked urchins with four actors above a pub? Nevertheless, two hours after the first internalised ‘humbug’ we’re all singing ‘Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas’ with the cast and feeling impressively jolly.
The group’s secret appears to be twofold. One, to approach their task as strolling players, chivvying up spirits by strumming instruments and carolling in a vaguely Victorian manner. Two, and not quite so successfully, relying on our imaginations. So stretched are the consummate performance skills available that the ghost of Christmas future is played by a human-shaped structure with a sheet over it. Doubling up is part of the fun, of course. Bridge House Theatre regular, Jamie Ross, copes with both extremes of the optimism spectrum in bright-eyed Bob Cratchit on one hand and decomposing Jacob Marley on the other; he is also Musical Director. Ben Woods navigates a similar stretch between Scrooge’s nephew and Young Scrooge but does so effortlessly. Saorla Wright mops up the female roles and the ghost of Christmas Past with cheeriness and agility, literally jumping between parts at times, whether Mrs Cratchit, Belle or atmospheric cello.
Best of all, the central role of Scrooge is played by Rachel Izen, by some reports the first female to play the role, and it is the originality and force of her performance that keeps the venture from ever looking like coming off the rails. Playing him as a more contemporary, bullish capitalist rather than the shrivelled old fun-sponge usually depicted lifts this familiar yarn and steers it away from the gothic spookiness that’s often wasted on modern audiences anyway.
In service of Scrooge’s emotional journey, Director Guy Retallack’s own adaptation pushes the action along and allows for joyous interludes like a game of charades with the audience, a threat of participation which brings the only true scary moment for many. His adaptation also demands great discipline and support from the creative and technical departments, outstanding among which is the Sound Design from Phil Lee, who is kept especially busy evoking a roomful of invisible children and howling winds whenever a door is opened. The puppetry (Consultant, Jo Elizabeth May) is a good solution to space and cast issues, but an inanimate Tiny Tim is as hard to love as it’s possible for a sickly child to be. This is awkward given his job of delivering the tear-jerking last line, but by then everyone has caught Bob Cratchit’s spirit of forgiveness and is ready to join the singalong. Why? Because ‘Christmas’.
“As a literary exercise about an intriguing moment in history it is well constructed and makes some significant points, but as a theatrical, period thriller, it never quite grips us”
Deeply affected by escaping a train derailment unscathed, Charles Dickens wrote ‘The Signalman’ as a Christmas ghost story which also allowed a social comment on the problems of safety and the pressurised working conditions on the railway. Appealing to the Victorians’ fascination with the supernatural as well as focusing on a hot topic of the day, Dickens’ tale is an interesting insight into an era of the juxtaposed worlds of spirituality and technical innovation. Through the anxiety of the signalman and his premonitory visions, he describes the psychological wear and tear of a lonely job requiring little skill but which shoulders the huge responsibility of passenger safety. The narrator spots the signalman at the bottom of a steep railway cut and out of curiosity, decides to befriend him. Although a somewhat underwhelming storyline for today’s audience, the sense of mystery comes from the initial impression the signalman gives to the narrator of his ‘troubled’ mind and which grows as the narrative between them becomes more involved. From the outset, Dickens’ protagonist is clearly haunted by the mental strain of long nights listening out for the warning bell to avert any possible catastrophe.
Faithful to the original text, Martin Malcolm’s stage adaptation reconstructs the dialogue as a monologue by the signalman and introduces Joe, a crossing sweeper, as his silent listener. The production opens with the signalman clearing the aftermath of an accident and recounting it in detail to the sweeper. The account weaves in details of the Staplehurst disaster itself, at which Dickens helped his fellow travellers who lay injured. As the play goes on, we hear how the signalman is increasingly disturbed by the stranger who stands at the mouth of the tunnel, his warnings and the tragedies which follow. Tim Larkfield, as the Signalman, does a good job in creating and sustaining his character from the script but, single-handed, the build-up of tension is a strain. Rather than being drawn into the sensation of foreboding suspense, what results is more of a thoughtful take on the Victorian dramatic monologue. Unfortunately, considering the amount of time she is on stage, Helen Baranova also misses an opportunity for an imaginative cameo role as Joe. Even as a mute waif, her purpose as a vehicle for the storytelling could bring dimension to the whole performance with a thought-through, Dickensian personality – Smike, for example – rather than simply following with facial echoing.
The direction (Sam Raffal) is clean cut and incorporates an illusory soundscape and some dramatic lighting, especially towards the end, but to lure the audience with the torments of the signalman, it needs more of these ideas throughout. As a literary exercise about an intriguing moment in history it is well constructed and makes some significant points, but as a theatrical, period thriller, it never quite grips us.