Image by Anna Söderblom
If you’re beginning to tire of traditional Christmas shows, a very different kind of festive fare being performed at Islington’s Old Red Lion this December might be just the thing for you. Returning to the stage for its third production, Neil Bartlett’s A Christmas Carol will be directed by rising talent Gus Miller in a bold reimagining of Dickens’s classic story, set firmly in the present day.
“We were interested in getting to the heart of what A Christmas Carol is about, rather than producing a Victorian replica of the story everyone knows,” said Miller. “We wanted to come to it completely fresh, so although Bartlett does talk about the previous productions of his play in the introduction to the text, we haven’t really been directly influenced by either of them.”
Given that the story of A Christmas Carol is so heavily focused on the development and gradual transformation of a single, central character, what’s perhaps most unusual about Miller’s take on the story is his collaborative, ensemble-led approach.
“We have a chorus that performs around Scrooge in a really playful way,” he explained. “Everyone brings ideas to the table and I think we’ve unearthed a lot through improvisation.”
His attempt to use improvisational techniques, “to find a visual language that speaks to the heart of the story,” naturally demands a particular kind of openness from both the cast and creatives. An ability to cast aside any preconceptions and a willingness to take risks – these are qualities Miller feels he has been lucky enough to find in his performers.
“We had a process of auditions where we got the actors to explore radically different takes on the characters. We were looking for performers with a real sparkiness – a willingness to make impulsive decisions and to jump at anything. Rather than stony-faced method actors, we wanted people with an almost child-like freedom.”
Metal Rabbit, the production team behind the show, have also been very supportive of his ideas.
“They’re very practical and they understand all the logistical restraints, but at the same time they’re very exciting and very pro-creative,” he said.
The result of this inventiveness is a production that varies enormously, jumping between different styles as its changing moods mirror those of its protagonist. Yet as far as Miller is concerned, this is, in some ways, nothing new, but rather a reworking of the complexities of the original story:
“What’s so gorgeous about this story is that there’s an enormous number of difference styles within it. It ends up with an explosion of joy, but that is only possible because we’ve gone on a journey through London’s underworld and experienced all the grotesque and harrowing elements. Some parts of it feel really scary, some are very truthful and others are just off-the-wall crazy.”
It’s perhaps in part the gloriously messy and eclectic nature of this story that keeps us returning to it more than a century after its initial publication, but there are other, more urgent reasons to revisit it now. With economic crises ongoing around the world, it might be argued that a cautionary tale about the consequences of greed and inequality has become more relevant than ever. Nevertheless, Miller has opted to avoid making the parallels too easy or overtly political.
“This production finds the contemporary resonances without shoehorning the story into the present in any obvious way,” he said. “One of the things we discussed was how people in this city often live in a kind of bubble, and we talked about what happens when that bubble is popped.”
In this way, rather than serving as a polemic that targets specific groups or individuals, Miller’s production attempts to open up the possibility of change for everyone.
“What happens to Scrooge is a really comprehensive breaking down of self-imposed barriers. His change is presented as a simple decision that anyone can make. That’s what makes it such a feel-good story,” he said . “In this production, we try to take the audience on that same kind of journey with Scrooge, so it starts out in a very cold, dark place and we end up with something very lively and fun, and that creates a kind of release.”
If you’re still not quite sure what to expect from this “chilling” yet “all-singing, all-transforming” show, perhaps that’s almost the point: this looks set to be a show full of surprises, A Christmas Carol as you’ve never seen it before.
To book tickets and find out more information go to the Old Red Lion Theatre website.