“a play that leaves its audience with such an infectious sense of joy”
A Christmas Carol – it’s a story many of us know so well. Based on Charles Dickens’ novel, the Watermill Theatre’s Christmas production is a charming and moving retelling of the famous tale. “A story is a candle in a dark place,” begins our narrator moments before the candle floats in front of us. We are assured that this tale will be a magical one. When Scrooge’s long dead business partner appears in his bedroom, weighed down by chains, he tells Scrooge that three ghosts will come to him, the ghost of Christmas past, present and Christmas yet to come. Across the course of the evening, Christmas Eve to be specific, the three ghosts visit the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge to show him what life lived in greed will bring him, and to remind him of how he became the man he is today . This is a story of the human capacity to change for the better and it is a heart-warming watch. Danielle Pearson’s adaptation, directed by Georgie Straight, pivots around this sense of a second chance. It is a touching and universal story, full of the harshness of life and the joy of it.
The show is a two-hander, and our two actors Pete Ashmore and Tilly-Mae Millbrook handle their many parts with ease. Ashmore’s Scrooge undergoes an incredibly moving transformation, from the gruff, merciless man we first meet to the joyfully energetic and generous figure the play ends with. Millbrook as the Narrator is warm and playful, bringing the audience into her tale. Between them they also play everyone else, made unrecognisable by a change of accent and a floral scarf. Designed by Emily Barratt, each costume detail denoting a different character is vivid and sufficient.
The set, which features dark bricks and hanging washing, is designed by Isobel Nicholson. A piano is disguised as Bob Cratchitt’s desk branded with Scrooge and Marley’s sign. Several of the ghosts are created through set – a lantern reimagined and a cloaked shape falling from the ceiling. Creating such a multi-role show with only two actors could have proved a real challenge, but the show has been conceived in such a way – through script, costume and design, that we never want for more actors than we have onstage. Clever sound design by Tom Marshall creates the sense of bustling streets and heightens each ghost’s arrival. Harry Armytage’s lighting design is equally clever: two windows at the back of the stage are lit and filled with silouhettes from the cobwebs of Camden to groups of party guests gathered together.
The show is punctuated with beautiful harmonised renditions of classic Christmas songs which the actors sing and accompany themselves, on violin, clarinet and piano. Both are accomplished players and Ashmore’s violin playing is particularly impressive and evocative.
Every element of this show is lovely, well made, detailed, delivered by a faultless cast and creative team. The Watermill Theatre handles the Covid-19 restrictions fantastically and patiently, and it is a pleasure to be back in a theatre again, especially to see a play that leaves its audience with such an infectious sense of joy and the possibility of human nature.
“Georgie Staight’s no-frills revival is powerful and chilling”
Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau, originally produced in London in 2010, follows the intersecting lives of four young people struggling to get by in London. Cassie works for a feminist organisation that lobbies parliament. Rose believes in fairies and star signs and true love. Mark is a womanising marketing bro. Tim, suffering from depression, barely manages his shifts at a fast food takeaway. Their lives intertwine with devastating consequences in this modern-day Grimm’s fairytale.
Director Georgie Staight’s no-frills revival is powerful and chilling. With a sparse, efficient set (Bex Kemp) – just a few wooden boxes used as benches and tables – Staight boldly strips the show down to its leanest form. Fast-paced and highly entertaining, there isn’t a dull moment in its nearly two-hour runtime.
Staight’s faith in the strength of her cast to carry the show barefaced, without the padding of excessive design, is not misplaced. Four well-selected actors deliver accomplished performances. George Fletcher is easily convincing as the cocky, manipulative Mark. Callum Sharp is subtle yet nuanced as the harmless – but perhaps not quite – Tim Muffin. Isabel Della-Porta wholly owns her role as the strong but still immature feminist Cassie. And Katie Buchholz shines, earning her place as the star of the show, with an exceptional performance as the idealistic, desperate Rose. Buchholz is captivating: fluttery and electric with madness at all of her edges. She effortlessly draws focus and holds it for the duration she’s on stage. Like a violin string wound too tight, she keeps us on edge, uneasily wondering when she’ll snap. Cassie says she’s a little bit afraid of Rose. We are too.
Although there are moments of the play that feel dated – in the post-Metoo era, a ‘feminist’ is no longer a curiosity – Staight is smart in realising the many ways Eigengrau is immediately relevant. Men pretending to be woke (or worse, believing they are), while demeaning and manipulating women, are still sharks in 2019 waters. And the overall feminist message still rings true: Rose embodies the damage done by years of consuming misogynist ideology packaged as fairytales and rom-coms. Disinterest from men means she’s deficient. There’s no relationship that can’t be fixed by the right dress and a grand gesture. It’s no wonder her optimism, at the age of twenty-seven, is beginning to take on a manic quality. Cassie wants Rose to see the world for what it is: cruel and oppressive, full of untrustworthy people. But Rose shuts her eyes to any evidence that contradicts her belief the world is a good place. If the world is hideous, isn’t it better to be blind?
Eigengrau is the name for the shade of black seen by the eye in perfect darkness. With this revival, Staight is shrewd asking the woke generation of 2019 – who see, daily, the harsh realities of a sinister society no longer bothering to disguise its hate – how tempting, how soothing, must eigengrau be? To shut your eyes, shut it all out, even for a moment? But while eigengrau may seem like a safe haven, Skinner’s story reminds us of the danger in seeking it. No progress can be made in darkness. There’s no going back to sleep, now that we’re awake.
With this production of Eigengrau, Staight is asking feminist questions that, nine years later, audiences still need to hear. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Skinner’s enthralling, razor sharp play revived by a strong cast.