Review: A Christmas Carol at Chickenshed

Of all the many, many versions of A Christmas Carol on offer in and around London this festive season, few could be more heartfelt than the one that opened last week at Chickenshed. Charles Dickens’ much-loved message of compassion and generosity is a perfect match for Chickenshed’s own ethos of inclusivity, and presented here by a rotating cast of 200 (per show – 800 in total), the result is both spectacular to watch and joyously festive to experience.

Photo credit: Ava de Souza

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Ashley Driver), who sees the error of his ways one Christmas Eve after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, has been updated slightly in Lou Stein’s production to take place not in Victorian London, but in the 1930s. This allows for an element of social commentary on the economic and political climate of the time (and not just of that time; an inadequate welfare system and women demanding equal pay both feature prominently), an attractive Art Deco style set designed by William Fricker, and an enjoyable jazz-inspired feel to Dave Carey’s original musical numbers. But it also, importantly, drives home the timeless relevance of Dickens’ novel and the lessons it imparts; whatever century we’re in, the need to look out for each other never goes away.

In what Chickenshed regulars will recognise as a typically ambitious Christmas production, Ashley Driver confidently and very competently leads the core cast as Scrooge. The success of any production of this story depends on having a central character who the audience both dislikes and believes is capable of change – and this one delivers on both counts; at first every inch the villain, as the story moves on Driver proves he can do fear, bemusement and finally infectious joy just as convincingly. Alongside him, Finn Walters is a very likeable Bob Cratchit – doting father to a humorously excessive number of children – and Paul Harris a suitably spooky Marley (though not as chilling as Will Laurence’s Ghost of Christmas Future; think Dementors on rollerblades and you’re not far off). In one of many magical moments, Ghost of Christmas Present Michael Bossisse makes an unexpected entrance that delights the audience, while Gemilla Shamruk hits all the right notes – in every sense – as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

What makes Chickenshed’s A Christmas Carol truly unique, though, is the huge supporting cast. Just as everyone who comes to see a show at the theatre receives the warmest of welcomes, there’s a place too at Chickenshed for anyone who wants to perform, and this is reflected in the diversity, enthusiasm and cooperation we see on stage. Despite the daunting numbers of young people involved, everyone is exceptionally well organised, and there’s a real sense of shared purpose from them all, however big or small their role. And while I’m singing Chickenshed’s praises, let’s also mention it’s great to see a show that not only features signing but places it proudly at front and centre of the performance.

This is theatre for everyone, by everyone – and if it doesn’t get your Christmas spirit going, then frankly I suspect nothing will. I generally make it a rule to try and see only one A Christmas Carol per year; I’m glad this is the one I chose for 2018. It might not be as polished as some, but there’s no doubt it’s got the biggest heart (not to mention cast) of them all.

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Interview: David Burt, A Christmas Carol

Antic Disposition’s critically acclaimed production of A Christmas Carol returns to Middle Temple Hall this festive season, with Olivier Award nominated star of the West End David Burt in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Adapted for the stage by Antic Disposition’s artistic directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, the show combines Charles Dickens’ classic tale with a score of original songs inspired by the carols of a traditional Victorian Christmas.

“It may sound strange but I feel quite affectionate towards the old grump. He’s like an old friend now!” says David, who’s returning to the role of Scrooge in this production for the third time. “People sometimes think of the character as a bit one dimensional, but for me there’s always something new to discover. Dickens describes him as being ‘as solitary as an oyster’ and you have to ask yourself what sort of experience can drive a person to shut themselves off from the rest of the world as completely as Scrooge has done. That’s really interesting!”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Over 170 years after it was written, A Christmas Carol remains one of the world’s best-loved festive stories. David believes this is largely due to its continuing relevance: “One of the most brilliant things about the story is the way it combines a celebration of Christmas with a cautionary tale about what happens if we don’t respect its message,” he explains. “The need for love, charity and understanding remains as strong today as when Dickens wrote the book in 1843.”

The return of A Christmas Carol marks the end of another successful year for Antic Disposition, whose recent productions include cathedral tours of Henry V and Richard III. “It’s such a friendly company, and several of the actors have been doing this show as long as I have, so getting back together is always fun,” says David.

Although this is the fourth outing for the show, which was previously performed in 2012, 2014 and 2015, this time around it’s been revised and expanded for performance by a cast of actor musicians. David believes it’s this musical aspect of the production that makes it stand out from the crowd. “This year there’s new music, and more of it – and this time the actors are playing instruments as well as the band. I think the music is what really lifts this version. It’s all played and sung live and really conjures up a Christmas atmosphere. Plus there are a couple of new bits of stage business this time that I won’t spoil for you!”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In addition, the show is performed once again in a unique and stunning venue – London’s Middle Temple Hall. “There’s a direct connection to Dickens, which makes it pretty special he trained there to be a barrister,” David explains. “But it’s also just such a beautiful building, steeped in history, it always feels quintessentially Christmassy here.

Review: A Christmas Carol, the Musical in Concert at the Lyceum Theatre

The next time someone tries to tell me Facebook is a bad thing (I have a colleague who tells me this with monotonous regularity, so it undoubtedly won’t be long), I plan to tell them the story of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra. In 2015, Freddie Tapner wrote a casual post looking for fellow musicians to play through a musical, just for fun. 24 hours later, he’d received over 250 replies – and two weeks after that, LMTO was born.

The shared passion that inspired the orchestra’s creation could be felt in abundance last night at the Lyceum Theatre, where an all-star cast joined LMTO for their one-night-only concert performance of A Christmas Carol – never more so than when founder and Principal Conductor Freddie Tapner bounded on to the stage to rapturous applause. His infectious joy was just the first highlight in an evening full of festivity, optimism and goodwill towards men.

Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

Though the show, written by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, is better known on Broadway than in the West End, the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is as British as they come. Grumpy old man Ebenezer Scrooge is not a fan of Christmas. Or charity. Or indeed people – and definitely not children. Not, that is, until he’s visited on Christmas Eve by the spirit of his former partner Jacob Marley, who’s now suffering for the sins he committed in life. Marley’s appearance is followed by visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who help Scrooge to finally see the error of his ways, just in time.

The cast of singers brought together the cream of West End talent, including Robert Lindsay, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Peter Polycarpou, Hugh Maynard, Madalena Alberto and Norman Bowman, to name just a few. Alongside them were several young performers who proved more than a match for their more experienced co-stars; 9-year-old Tobias Ungleson particularly shone as Tiny Tim, with a performance that hit all the right notes both musically and emotionally.

But the biggest star of the evening, appropriately, was the orchestra. So often an afterthought for musical theatre audiences, here the musicians had the opportunity to take centre stage, and they didn’t waste a moment of it. It hardly mattered that the show was in a concert format; Alan Menken’s glorious score and the orchestra’s joyous performance of it told us everything we needed to know. Though not without its darker moments – the appearance of Jacob Marley (Norman Bowman) was suitably creepy, for instance – A Christmas Carol is, for the most part, a full-on celebration of all things festive, and if anyone left the Lyceum not feeling even a little uplifted – well, frankly they should probably change their name to Scrooge now and be done with it.

Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

In fact the whole evening was so delightful that it almost feels wrong to find fault… so please don’t call me a Grinch for quietly pointing out that there were times when the orchestra’s enthusiasm became just a little overwhelming. Despite their best efforts, the singers were occasionally drowned out, and much of the spoken dialogue – particularly Robert Lindsay’s grouchy mutterings as Scrooge – was barely audible at all. (There was also one forgotten lines moment right at the end, but it was well covered, and by that point the entire theatre was so delirious with festive cheer that nobody gave a figgy pudding anyway.)

The main downside of the evening, though, is that it was only a one-off performance and we won’t get to see it again. However, it’s clear that the London Musical Theatre Orchestra are not going anywhere, and that is certainly news to which we can raise a festive glass or two.

So Merry Christmas – and God bless us, every one!

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