Russ Hunt's Reviews

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Shamata

Theatre New Brunswick
December 1994

Dickens and Douglas Campbell -- and Christmas -- is a sure bet for Theatre New Brunswick, and director Michael Shamata hasn't passed it up.

Watching -- and listening to -- Douglas Campbell rumble, twitch, mutter and growl as the legendary Ebenezer Scrooge is itself worth the price of the ticket. He's got, as they say, all the moves. Some of the best moments in the current production -- a reprise of a previous TNB show -- involve Campbell alone on the stage, recovering from the last visit of a Christmas ghost or preparing for the next one. It's a shamelessly hammy performance, and one lots of people will love. It earned a standing ovation at the preview performance Thursday night.

That said, it seems somehow ungrateful to have to point out that the evening didn't seem quite as rich as it might have been, or even as I remember the previous TNB production of A Christmas Carol to have been. All the elements were there -- John Ferguson's wonderful set remains as wonderful as ever, Julie Fox's costumes are still super, and all the technical stage tricks -- the lighting and scrims which render doors suddenly transparent, the sound system, the fog machine -- are unrolled for our amazement.

Perhaps it was because they did seem to be brought in to amaze the audience, rather than for some more legitimate dramatic purpose, that the evening seemed, on the whole, a little less than magical. The most magical moment of theatre, in fact, was John Dolan's masterful prologue. In it, the actor comes out and, while making himself up as Marley's Ghost, explains the "ghost light" in the center of the stage. He explains that we don't need it tonight, and turns it out. It's unfortunate that nothing else in the evening quite lived up to Dolan's presence and timing and that sudden, anticipatory blackness.

It may be that the timing of some of the scenes wasn't quite ready on preview night, but the swirls of people celebrating Christmas present and the dark vision of Christmas future seemed more like separate set pieces, elements of a pageant, than visions. Jack Dolan, playing all three Christmas ghosts, didn't seem to have much to do but stand around in his elaborate costumes while the pageants trundled on and off.

And there seemed to be some conceptual problems with the design of the show. The fog which swept over the stage at every opportunity didn't seem to be serving any patterned purpose. Was it cold? Was it spooky and supernatural? Was it just a dissolve between two scenes? All of the above?

And what were the recurrent ladders for? When, at one point, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge exit right by climbing a ladder which appears suddenly from the wings, I thought perhaps Ladder was a Symbol. But later, as people climbed up and down ladders to hang and take down Christmas lanterns and decorations, and were wheeled about clinging to the upper steps, I wondered if it weren't just an attempt to use a ladder because we happened to have one around.

Perhaps because such considerations kept me from being swept along, I found myself reflecting about the problems of the script. Michael Shamata's adaptation provides lots of occasion for theatrical display, but it's too bad that the plot is over almost as soon as it begins. We see Scrooge being his curmudgeonly self only in the first scene: as soon as the Ghost of Jacob Marley suggests that Charity is the Best Policy, Scrooge signs on and converts to Christmas. After that, the visits of the three ghosts -- not to mention all the accompanying pageantry -- seem quite unnecessary. We never have a moment's doubt that in the end we're going to see Scrooge capering about and chortling as he dispenses turkeys and salary increases.

All this may be connected to the basic problem with the original Dickens story: it's a wonderful, warm fable, but we never really do understand the pre-conversion Scrooge as anything more than a villain. As I listened to him rumble about charity and Christmas humbug last night, I thought that it would be interesting to allow Scrooge to be a little more convincing. Perhaps we could give him some reasons for being a bit sceptical about the value of charity and the wonder of Christmas. As we pass the fifteenth Salvation Army Santa on the block, how many of us haven't had the temptation to mutter "Humbug"? How many of us wouldn't sympathize a bit with a Scrooge who thought there was a response to social pain somewhere between a Christmas turkey and a turn in debtor's prison or the workhouse? Wouldn't we care more when he's converted if we'd cared more earlier?

But that would be asking for a play neither Charles Dickens, nor Michael Shamata, nor Douglas Campbell, nor the skillful and committed cast of the TNB production, had in mind. Perhaps a play by George Bernard Shaw.

Rather than wait for that one, let's take the kids to see the theatrical magic and humbug of this one, and let's be kids ourselves and enjoy it. Let's take the other end of Michael Shamata's sure bet.

And, the rest of the winter, let's think about this: whether you think playing a sure bet is a good thing depends on whether you think TNB will use the income and the audience confidence to subsidize some risks, some Yard Sales and Waiting for Godots. If they can't, or don't, well . . a steady diet of sure things is fun, but in the long run it's not the most satisfying for the audience, or the most healthy and challenging for the company.

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