Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol returns to Theatre New Brunswick with a new adaptation by Artistic Director Thomas Morgan Jones. Nora McLellan features in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, marking the first time in TNB’s history that a woman has played the character. The production, directed by Anne-Marie Kerr, runs at the Fredericton Playhouse from December 14 – 16, then at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre on the 17th.
Let’s talk about the set and lighting first, because…wow.
Set designer Joanna Yu presents an industrial warehouse aesthetic with four giant shelves – one on each side with the other two upstage – stocked with props and furniture, and a pair of rolling stairs. (Up above are chairs suspended by wire). Yu’s set is not only eye-catching, but very appropriate given the Industrial Revolution’s impact on British society and Dickens as both an author and social critic.
And it’s all beautifully lit by Leigh Ann Vardy. Vardy employs shades of blue for a ghostly, chilling effect. This is a ghost story, after all, and it’s winter. There are also warm shades of green and orange for more jovial moments, like the Ghost of Christmas Present’s introduction.
Everyone from Mr. Magoo (later parodied by The Simpsons) to The Flintstones to the Muppets has told their own version of A Christmas Carol. Therein lies the challenge of staging A Christmas Carol. By this point, everyone knows the story, even if they aren’t familiar with the source material. So, how do you tell the story in a way that surprises people again?
Fast, fun, and full of surprises, TNB’s production of A Christmas Carol enchants with its theatricality. The ensemble, acting like an otherworldly theatre troupe, pull various props from the shelves to tell the story and create different settings. For instance, what looks like an ordinary door knocker turns into that scene from Stranger Things where the Demogorgon tries to push out of the wall. The effect is created with actress Katie Swift pushing her face through a framed painting of a door knocker. It’s terrifying.
What’s really interesting is Kerr’s choice to block the scene between young Scrooge (Andre Morin) and his fiancée Belle (Swift) in one of the shelves. Suddenly, Yu’s industrial-looking warehouse reveals its true purpose – the warehouse is Scrooge, and its stored with his memories, if not unconscious mind. Perhaps then, the miser’s journey with the spirits exists somewhere between internal conflict and supernatural phenomenon. It’s a different take on the classic tale that gives it a just a little more dimension.
However, Kerr stumbles with McLellan’s entrance as Scrooge. McLellan’s entrance ends with a top hat lowering onto her head, as if the hat were some cultural icon that deserves something so dramatic. What happens next is that the hat looks ridiculous because there’s a small metal ring (where the wire hooks) poking out for no reason other than that one ‘cool moment’.
What happened to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s dress?
Ijeoma Emesowum enjoys a fabulous entrance as the happy spirit, but then she turns and there’s an exposed wire cage sticking out behind her. Either there was a costume malfunction or it’s an intentional design choice by Sherry Kinnear. Likely the former given that the spirit is supposed to have an overall big presence, and a similar form is used for another dress just a few scenes before. If intentional, it’s a choice that really doesn’t pay off. The cage steals a lot of attention from everything else. Otherwise, the dress is lovely with its bright festive colours.
McLellan brings a nice touch of dry humour to Scrooge. Don’t fret, McLellan’s Scrooge has plenty of humbugs to pass around. Everyone who dares wish Scrooge a merry Christmas or, worse, asks him to part with his money is met with the popular catchphrase. This hint of humour makes Scrooge’s redemption all the more joyous because the character’s hardened exterior melts away to fully reveal the good-nature that had always been.
Speaking of goodness, Sophia Black is an absolute delight as Tiny Tim, among her other roles that include the Ghost of Christmas Past. Your heart may just break a little when the cheery young actress walks on as Tim, and then a little more later when the Cratchits are missing a seat at their table.
Also in the cast are Adrian Choong and Mark Crawford who like everyone else, besides McLellan, play multiple roles. Notably, Crawford plays Bob Cratchit, later the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Kinnear has dressed the spirit as what looks like a plague doctor, with glass eyes and a bird beak. It’s a strong choice that’s unsettling from far away, and a fitting one since the spirit is there to cleanse Scrooge (by showing him death).
All in all, it’s a fine production of A Christmas Carol. There are elements that help reinvigorate Dickens’ heartwarming tale, and then some that don’t quite hit the mark. Still, audiences looking to escape the winter blues will more than likely feel uplifted by TNB’s production of A Christmas Carol. If nothing else, they will walk away impressed by very splendid set and lighting design.
Theatre New Brunswick’s A Christmas Carol runs Dec 14 – 16 at the Fredericton Playhouse, then at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre on the 17th.
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/a-christmas-carol/