Assembly and Riverside Studios at the Arts Theatre
It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas … A couple of inches of sparkly snow this morning, and then Simon Callow's masterly telling of that most seasonal of tales, Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Hardly a dramatization, with the various voices mostly just hinted at, and nothing like the author's own readings: no desk, no prompt copy with gestures and vocalizations noted in the margin. But a compelling narration, subtly staged in Tom Cairns' atmospheric production.
We enter to see the seven assorted chairs stacked at the sides, rather incongruously draped in fairy lights. There's a gauze, snow and a City streetscape, and on the soundtrack, an appropriate carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Callow, in overcoat and muffler, begins with a simply delivered prologue, almost conversational. Only on "once upon a time" does the coat come off and we get down to business in Scrooge's counting-house. And at the close, the envoi and the epilogue, he carefully stacks chairs and fairy lights before delivering the final "God bless us, every one!".
The effects are sparingly deployed: the clock, the window, the bells, the firelight. For the most part it's down to Callow's mellifluous voice, the timbre beautifully tempered to convey the passion and the sentiment of the story. Of course, there is a deal of humour too, with dancing fingers at Fezziwig's ball, the party game of Yes and No, featuring a roomful of eager voices, and a very contemporary "boy in Sunday clothes" near the end – "Christmas Day, innit ?".
The text is carefully abridged [Dickens himself used a similar, much shortened version]. A shame to eliminate Mrs Dilber, but these eighty minutes did include a generous helping of the author's inventive imagery, as well as the essential elements of the supernatural and savage satire. A century and a half later, Dickens' city is still haunted by Ignorance and Want, Christmas is still "a time for paying bills without money" and the world is not yet free of "guilty governments".
Callow's quietly commanding presence, working its magic on our imaginary forces, the beautifully judged staging, and Dickens's timeless fable, make for a genuinely moving seasonal experience, an organic antidote to the strident tinsel of London's Christmas.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews