CHRISTMAS THEATRE REVIEWS
A Christmas Carol
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 3
James And The Giant Peach
Until December 31
Reviewed by Mark Brown
If you are seeking refuge from the double entendres and cloot beckoning that is traditional pantomime, you need look no further than the Citizens Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. The Glasgow playhouse has long been a byword for quality yuletide theatre, and, with this year’s rendering of Dickens’s great tale of redemption, it has excelled itself.
From the moment Cliff Burnett’s excellent Scrooge arrives in his counting house, his hollow laugh indicating a pleasure in nothing except his own misanthropic cruelty, we know we are in safe hands. Boasting a top class ensemble, fabulous design, superb live sound, song and music, and a perfectly structured adaptation (Neil Barlett’s version from 2002), Dominic Hill’s production is a thing of consistently brilliant beauty.
Atmosphere is crucial to staging Dickens, and this presentation is unerring. Designers Rachael Canning (sets, costumes and puppets) and Lizzie Powell (lighting) have created from Hill’s neo-Brechtian aesthetic a London which transforms in moments from the dark, dismal city of the miser’s slender imagination to the bright, beneficent embrace of the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party.
The ghosts of Christmases past, present and future are represented in an imaginative diversity that epitomises the piece. The first, a puppet child, is genuinely illuminating; the second, a hilariously corpulent John Kielty, looks like Santa after he’s raided Gyles Brandreth’s collection of woolly jumpers; whilst the third, an immense, bleak, wispy apparition, appears like a minion of the Grim Reaper himself.
Hill collaborates once again, and to tremendous effect, with acclaimed composer and sound designer Nikola Kodjabashia. The Macedonian’s work, which ranges from amplified vocal evocations of the locking of doors to a musical score which is extrapolated imaginatively from much-loved Christmas carols, is, like every other element of the piece, woven, seamlessly into the fabric of the production.
Indeed, it is this extraordinary coherency in the relationships between the various components of the show which accounts for its success. A gorgeous, intelligent, humane production, it will, surely, be remembered alongside the very best in early 21st-century Scottish Christmas theatre (from Graham McLaren’s Christmas Carol for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011, to Hill’s own Three Musketeers for the Traverse in 2010).
To compare any other piece of seasonal theatre to the wonders being worked at the Citz would be invidious. However, even if one measures Jemima Levick’s staging of Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach for Dundee Rep against her own Christmas Carol (for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh back in 2005), there is a sense of mild disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong, this presentation of Dahl’s tale of the unfortunate James and his transatlantic travels with a coterie of insects is, in many respects, very enjoyable. However, as so often at the Rep these days, there’s a sense of inconsistency.
The Tayside theatre’s famous ensemble is, observably, in a period of transition, and that seems to be having a deleterious impact on the work. Even if one were willing to overlook the improbable age gap between James’s parents (presented to us briefly before their murder by a splendid escaped rhino), one can’t help but feel deflated when Dahl’s shark attack is conducted, not by a school of the fearsome fish, but by a single, solitary creature, represented by a somewhat small, half-hearted puppet.
That said, Levick’s production enjoys fine music by the ever-excellent Jon Beales and a stand-out performance, both as Earthworm (a grumbling, but ultimately heroic, Brummie) and a brilliantly awful Aunt Sponge, by David Delve. A late moment of audience participation (think huge, inflatable peach) works a treat, but one can’t help but wish for a more consistent and self-confident production.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 14, 2014
© Mark Brown