BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Bridge House Theatre
What is fringe theatre for? Most obviously, of course, to entertain - as with so much in life, you pays your money and you takes your choice - but it's also an intimate experience, a chance to strip familiar stories back to their basics, to retreat from the CGI and relentless noise of franchise movies.
That's what you get in another fine addition to Guy Retallack's portfolio of Christmas shows at the Bridge House Theatre. No hologrammed ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come; no scenes full of CGIed urchins nicking apples from the costermonger's cart; no shameless manipulation of emotions just after selling you a programme for £5 or a bucket of popcorn for even more.
It's Dickens, so sentimentality isn't entirely absent, but the hard edge that's in the novels (that can get a little too sugar-coated in the more biscuit-tinny adaptations of his most famous story) is front and centre when Ignorance and Want stalk the land, then as now. Perhaps the imaginative work the audience is required to do brings these fearful children to life so much more than were they simply presented as kids, another pair of characters in the Victorian snow.
If we have work to do in the house (and we have - it's half the fun), the actors do much more, a quartet delivering all the roles, linking scenes with narration, singing and playing musical instruments and even dabbling in audience participation!
Rachel Izen anchors the tale as Scrooge, the miser whose enlightenment brings forth joy to those around him, but, most of all, to himself. She's supported by fine work from Jamie Ross, Ben Woods and Saorla Wright, who inhabit those familiar roles with great gusto - decent Fred, disappointed Belle, debauched(ish) Fezziwig (and plenty more). The acting is splendid and what a delight it was to hear the text spoken with such clarity, the words crystal clear but the dialogue never stilted - you'd be surprised how often directors neglect such basics and what a challenge it proves to some performers.
Phil Lee's sound design and Richard Williamson's lighting (always critical for an adaptation of this story) are almost characters in themselves, driving the morality tale forward, filling in personalities as Marley lumbers forward or Young Scrooge loses his youthful zest. Again, an object lesson in craft overcoming limitations.
Perhaps the interval could have come a little earlier on those somewhat unforgiving chairs and maybe the introduction of new characters could be signalled a little more clearly by costume adjustments etc (as is often the case when actors play multiple roles, you lose a tick or two of dialogue registering that it's not the same character who left the stage 15 seconds earlier, even if it is the same actor).
But this is a fine straightish telling of an old story and will make a marvellous introduction for any kids aged 10 or above to the delights of up close and personal theatre. Their mums, dads and grandparents will enjoy it too.
In fact, they'll all be saying "Thank you very much" as they brace for the December air and the journey home*.
*Skipping is optional.
A Christmas Carol is at the Bridge House Theatre until 22 December.