Oh what fun it is to see A Christmas Carol at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre.
Three school buses full of teens and tweens, and one luxury bus full of very elderly people descended on the theater en masse for the Wednesday matinee, the tiny lobby a crush of the very young and the very old waiting for the house to open. As people settled into their seats, the atmosphere in the theater was festive and fun. Actors in Victorian dress walked up and down the aisles, chatting and laughing with members of the audience. Then the actors were called up onto the stage and a round of caroling began, the audience participating with gusto. The gentleman behind me had a particularly strong voice, on key, so I tried to imitate him. I was one of the children that Sister Mary Don't-Remember-Her-Name told to just move my lips during music class, so I can be a bit shy about singing out. Either I succeeded in imitating the gentleman, or people around me were too polite to comment or throw disapproving looks. Whichever the case, it was clear from the start that this play would not be a sour and dour rendering of the classic, but one with a light heart and loving message. But lest we forget what we were about to see, Mr. Hubble reminded us that Christmas is a time when “Want is keenly felt, and abundance is rejoicing.”
During the caroling and while attempting to sing on key, I noted that the curtain behind the actors is a giant Advent calendar, a Victorian street scene with numbered doors for the twenty-five days leading up to Christmas. The doors are used to great effect during this charming ninety-minute play.
Michael Therriault, who is brilliantly hilarious as Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl at the Shaw Festival this season, brings a very toned-down, but still delightfully comedic presence to his portrayal of that embittered father of all misers, Ebenezer Scrooge. He is fussy and grumpy and mean, and even his walk feels like penny-pinching, as if each step is costing him money. His body language is all closed-in, protecting himself from feeling compassion for those under his thumb, while devilishly delighting in hurting them. His transformation does not come easily, as he even snores money. But Marley and the ghosts are up to the task.
Director as well as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, Tim Carroll originally staged a version of this play at the National Theatre in Bergen, Norway. It was there that he and Alexis Milligan (Movement and Puppetry) developed the puppets to play some of the characters. The use of the puppets, large and small, with the excellent nine-member ensemble cast expands the scope of the play. Scrooge looks very shriveled and wretched, indeed, in the face of the giant otherworldly Marley and Ghost of Christmas Future puppets, while the cat and the jack-in-the-box puppets express a lightness and innocence that is also at the core of the story.
As for the ensemble, Jeff Meadows skates in as Christmas Present in a very funny scene. He really seems to be enjoying himself, giggling away and ever so pleased with himself. Sarena Parmar swings in as Christmas Past. She is very playful and sweet bouncing her giant balloon as she takes Scrooge into his childhood, reminding him of what was and might have been. And Andrew Lawrie does an excellent job as the long-suffering Cratchitt and door to the office. They play other characters, as well, both human and inert, along with the rest of this fine cast.
The story never gets lost in this production. With all of the creative uses of people, set pieces, puppets, music, comedic moments, and props, the story remains intact, never veering from the message of hope and love that Dickens wrote almost 175 years ago.
The audience loved A Christmas Carol at the matinee I attended. There must have been at least 200 young people there, and they were glued to their seats. I spoke with two of the teachers after the show. They said the kids do not have many opportunities to see live theater and that they were thrilled that the kids enjoyed the play so much. We all did. You might, too, if you head up to Niagara-on-the-Lake between now and December 23rd.