Russ Hunt's Reviews

Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens, adapted by Lowell Manfull

Theatre New Brunswick
December 2004

Across the English speaking world, in December Dickens is a hot ticket,a name to conjure with.  No author, not even Dylan Thomas, is nearlyas synonymous with all that's most stickily traditional about Christmas.AChristmas Carol, in all its many manifestations, has been the salvationof theatre companies and charity drives from Australia to, well, New Brunswick.So it's no surprise to find that the bookshelves have been scoured lookingfor what might serve as a Christmas Carol II.

If Cricket on the Hearth isn't quite it, it's not for lack oftrying. There have been a half-dozen different attempts to adapt Dickens'sentimental potboiler to the stage, including at least one musical. What might be the most recent, by Lowell Manfull, is this year's December"family-oriented" offering by Theatre New Brunswick, and if it retainsmost of the problems of Dickens' story and adds a couple peculiar to thestage, it's nonetheless true that the current show is not only far betterthan any of the recent condescending attempts at mounting "shows for kids"at the holiday season; it's also a production with some real merits andsome genuinely touching moments -- and it's a consistent delight to theeyes.

The curtain rises (yes; that's what I said. When was the last time you'veseen that?) on a lovely, comfortably Victorian looking transparent curtain,fringed at the bottom, that can be pulled back like draperies or, if thelighting is right, seen through. Opened, it discloses a nicely detailed,warm Victorian sitting room. The first character we see is a jaunty fiddler(Roy Johnstone, who not only plays but wrote the music), who, we discover,is the cricket on the hearth and can't be seen by any of the other characters,but whose elegant and understated music punctuates the action and the conversation,and who most of the time perches in an appropriately insectish way on astool next to the hearth.

As the rest of the ten-member cast appears, it is clear that MichaelEagan, the set and costume designer, has created a visual feast, with arich palette of browns and beiges and lots of touches of what we've allcome to know as Victorian coziness and warmth, of top hats and muttonchops,of bustle and bustles and clutter and congestion: a visual plum puddingof just the kind we associate with all those Dickensian moments.

Unfortunately, it takes the play almost the entire first act to getbeyond the visual and aural comfort and begin to engage us. This is partlybecause the adaptation assumes that we need lots of exposition, and partlybecause that exposition is conveyed in large part by a kind of contrapuntalchoral speaking by the cast, to one side and another of the sitting room,and partly because it's the exposition, as articulated on opening nightat any rate, is nearly impossible to understand. In turn this seems partlybecause Lowell Manfull appears to have decided that he would stick as closelyas possible to Dickens' original language.  The problem is that thisis not vintage Dickens -- in fact, a great deal of The Cricket on theHearth, as Dickens originally published it, sounds very much like aparticularly vicious parody of Dickens by some contemporary who wantedto make fun of the fact that Dickens was paid by the word. Much of thatlanguage finds its way directly into the script, both in the choral narrationand the dialogue, and not only is it arch, cute, and repetitive, but there'sso much of it that it often felt as though the cast were getting throughit as quickly as they could, and hoping that by speaking as loudly andanimatedly as they could they could compensate for the speed.

Nor is it clear that so much exposition is actually necessary. In outline,the story, while not at all like the simple arc of A Christmas Carol(it's much more like a sentimentalized comedy of errors), isn't all thatcomplex. John and Dot Peerybingle are comfortable in a May-to-Decembermarriage which has recently produced a son.  Mr. Tackleton, the Scroogecharacter in the play, a toy manufacturer who hates children (and presumablydogs, and certainly crickets), has decided to take on a young wife as well,rather the way a more modern manufacturer might buy his Miata. His employee,Caleb Plummer, oppressed by Tackleton rather the way Bob Cratchit was oppressedby Scrooge, has a blind daughter whom he's been misleading about the world,describing people and objects in artificially brightened colors. He alsoonce had a son, who disappeared  in South America long ago. May, the aptly named target of what it would be an exaggeration to callTackleton's affections, is being sold into servitude by her harridan mother.In the midst of all this arrives a mysterious stranger, virtually invisibleunder a mat of grey hair, and intermittently deaf, who takes a room withthe Perrybingles. That it takes virtually all of the first act to get thisacross is a serious difficulty with the script, and one which this productiondoesn't -- in spite of all the wonderful visual effects and the imaginativeblocking of characters to give us a sense of the texture of these lives-- quite solve.

Things get underway when we see that the Stranger is actually wearinga disguise, and is a rather presentable young man, and Tackleton, seeinghim talking intimately with Dot, summons John to see the conversation,showing him that it is actually silly for him to have imagined that a young,attractive woman could ever have really loved an older man. John, who hasalready expressed his wonderment about this, is immediately convinced thathis beloved Dot has betrayed him, and the second act is devoted to theextremely Victorian working out of the misapprehension.  It turnsout, of course, that the stranger is not some suitor of May, but the long-lostson, returned rich from South America to reclaim his bride, May, and thatDot is complicit in the plan to get them married secretly before her motherand Tackleton realize what's up. She, of course, can't tell her husbandbecause he, being preternaturally honest, would never agree to the deception,however sympathetic he might be to the plight of poor May.  Eventually,of course, everything is discovered, everything is fine: John and Dot arereconciled, May and her young man are married, the blind daughter discoversher father's deception and forgives him, Tackleton undergoes a singularlyunconvincing conversion and, by the end, is dancing with May's harridanmother -- who, upon being informed that the young man is far from penniless,has accepted the clandestine marriage.

In the midst of all this treacle, there are some moments of real humanunderstanding and pathos which are authentically touching.  NigelBennett, as the superhumanly virtuous John, makes us understand and feelfor his devastation at discovering what he had thought must be true, thathis bride really was unhappy in her marriage to an older man. His dumb-showanger, alone before the fire with the cricket punctuating his rage, andthen, even more, the speech in which he explains to the incredulous Tackletonthat his devotion to Dot includes a complete understanding of her situation,trapped in an arranged marriage to an old man, and his anger at himselffor his delusions, are captivating, particularly as we see that Dot overhearsthe speech but cannot disabuse him because to do so would discover thescheme to get May and the young man married. Similarly, the speech in whichDot finally does explain to him what's been going on, with its almost jokeyirony, is delivered powerfully and affectingly by Stacy Smith (who, elsewhere,is physically wonderful as the vivacious and supremely virtuous young wifeand mother, but whose vivacious speech often descends into incomprehensibility).

In Dickens' original story, and in this production, one can almost forgivethe arcane contrivance and excessive, kitschy sentimentality because it'snecessary to allow these moments of real human reflection, these revelationsof a profound relationship.  And it's hard to imagine a cast doinga much better job with the material: the nine actors and the musician-cricketare, in general, solid and competent in what are after all pretty cartoonishroles. Walter Learning is, as one might expect, solid and vivid as theScroogish Tackleton; Wally MacKinnon and Jody Stevens are disciplined andtouching as the hapless toymaker and his blind daughter. With the exception,as I've said, of the choral exposition, and agreeing that, yes, the stageis littered with a salad of British accents, Cricket on the Hearthis a valiant attempt to make Dickens' potboiler actually warm up -- evenoccasionally to the boiling point.

It's worth observing, too, that apparently Theatre New Brunswick hasabandoned the quixotic attempt to mount a pre-Christmas show suitable forthe kiddies. When this works, it's laudable, but the last few such showshave suggested that perhaps there simply aren't that many such shows around.Cricket on the Hearth is family entertainment, for sure, but itis mercifully free of the condescending exploitation of children whichcharacterizes far too many such productions.

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