A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story review: Mark Gatiss refreshes an all too familiar story
It’s hard to imagine anyone in a better position to rethink Dickens’ Christmas ghost story than Marc Gatiss. Or a better place to do it than the neglected, semi-abandoned Victorian theater in the atmospheric Alexandra Palace.
The former League of Gentleman star mixes his love of horror and humor with an obvious respect for the source text. Nicholas Farrell’s misanthropic Scrooge weaves his way through the action like a mangy, picky bird. The bells are ringing, shadows loom and ragged ghosts flutter above the heads of the audience. I’ve seen countless theatrical adaptations of the novel, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the beautiful Dickensian words spoken here by Jo Eaton-Kent’s Ghost of Christmas Past: Light that I give?
A decor of imposing filing cabinets and austere lighting gives Adam Penford’s production an almost expressionist tone. I’m not a huge rear-projection fan, but here images of satanic fireplaces, crashing waves, or turning pages from a book help magnify the action on stage. Despite its accuracy, the cavernous size of the place threatens to overwhelm the spectacle. That he never actually does is an honor for everyone involved.
Gatiss himself stands impressively as the specter of Scrooge’s late partner Marley, pale and swaying, wrapped in chains of guilt that could anchor QE2. He even builds his role up a bit: We see Marley sitting at his desk and Scrooge putting out his candle to save money. Fair enough. Because: funny.
Dickens’ moral message comes back with force. The three ghosts who teach Scrooge to err in his ways are angry or offended by his rejection of humanity. The Want and Ignorance characters shown to him are emaciated puppet children, and we see Bob Cratchit crying over Tiny Tim’s corpse. On the lighter side, there is a joyful dance and a moving rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful.
There is less of Scrooge’s private childhood here than in Jack Thorne’s version of the Old Vic, but no more of his dizzying rapture when offered a chance at redemption. Farrell’s antics are irresistible. Scrooge is to be played by an actor you’d like to have a drink with, so his change of heart feels like a homecoming, rather than a deathbed conversion of an “old sinner”.
Farrell and Gatiss are surrounded by a cast that includes trusted veteran Christopher Godwin – as the late-surprising narrator – and Zak Ford-Williams and Aoife Gaston, both making impressive stage debuts.
As someone who finds Dickens’ handwriting disgusting, I approach the versions of this story going around in circles around this time of year with trepidation, the words “bah, humbug” ready on my lips. And each time, well almost, I am won over. Mark Gatiss joins an honorable line of artists who made this story all too familiar but indestructible and still relevant, fresh and new.
Alexandra Palace, as of January 9; christmascarolonstage.co.uk