With an avalanche of new covid restrictions engulfing plans for many, even the most jolly of us will be feeling a bit “bah humbug” about this holiday season. Thank goodness, then, for companies like Guildford Shakespeare Company, demonstrating how festive cheer might be shared from afar.
In their Zoom-ed rendition of A Christmas Carol, with its all-too relevant reminder of gratitude, grief and generosity in difficult times, a distanced cast cheerfully fumble through Naylah Ahmed’s adaptation of Dickens’ festive staple.
Natasha Rickman tackles the challenges and ghostly visual possibilities of digital direction with an organised, ambitious grace. Every shot is designed to build a social environment and immerse the audience into their own roles in each scene (especially when we’re invited to dance at Fezziwig’s Christmas party!) Some inconsistencies in the digital backgrounds do, however, work to visually disillusion. Penelope Keith’s Ghost of Christmas Past, while played with a stand-out, witty subtlety, does appear, visually, in a different world to Scrooge as she guides him through the scenes of his histories.
Most of the cast, including a young rotating ensemble, multi-role with skilful energy and somehow, despite their geographical distance, achieve genuinely convincing relations and reactions as if they were really sharing a meal or a dance. Lucy Pearson’s sensitive adaptability is particularly touching as she transitions from a melancholy Belle to a playfully charming Fred.
The multi-rolling does mean, however, that the costumes often lack commitment in their purely symbolic capacity. For example, Jacob Marley (Robin Morrissey) materialises with only a chain wrapped around his head, and, while the character translates, his bare face wants for some more startling makeup to convincingly haunt the screen in a way that does his formidable groans perceptible justice.
Our Scrooge (Jim Findley) is played with a visceral sense of building weariness, so that we really root for his adorably eccentric happiness by the end of the show. And Brian Blessed’s thunderous Ghost of Christmas Present invokes a warm nostalgia in an audience longing (with a sad irony) for the bright and bustling Christmases of the recent past.
It’s only a shame that the script seems to have let its loyalty, to the illusions of Dickens’ original world, prevent it from being self-aware about the story’s translation to a digital format and all the colourful challenges that ensue. At times, where the Victorian narratives and settings come up against the necessities of the technical environment (we often see Scrooge click to unmute himself or change his background a little too late), there are missed opportunities for the two to have a decisively theatrically conversation.
Nonetheless, the festive heart of hope and joy, as captured beating in every little Zoom screen during the applause for A Christmas Carol, is testament to theatre’s powerful role in spreading and connecting high spirits all around. “God bless us, every one!”
A Christmas Carol is streaming until 27th December. For more information and tickets, see the Guildford Shakespeare Company website.
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