Review by Rosie Holmes
The festive season is well underway and this year The Rose Theatre in Kingston’s annual show is A Christmas Carol. The Rose Original Production features a wealth of local talent from the Rose Youth Theatre performing alongside a professional cast.
The story is one we are all familiar with; the miserly Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future to show him the error of his ways. Scrooge is transformed on Christmas Eve and learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas and show love and warmth to those around him.
In this production, Ebenezer, or ‘Ebbie’ is played by a woman, Penny Layden. This is deliberate casting, and in director Rosie Jones’ words “Scrooge is a woman in a man’s world and her position has been hard won.” Whilst this certainly is deliberate and perhaps makes us understand Scrooge’s bitterness more than in previous iterations of the story, this should not be mistaken as a central theme of the production. Layden is a convincing Scrooge, exhibitng a miserly presence that commands the audiences attention. Her talent really shines through in the later scenes when we see her experiencing happiness, demonstrated by a joyous scene in which she jumps on her bed with a true childlike quality. Layden is perhaps the anchor of this show, allowing the true tale of a Christmas Carol to be told, as it feels somewhat diluted for most of the show.
When it comes to a Christmas Carol on stage, there are many versions to choose from. Sometimes this can cause productions to try too hard to be different or tell the familiar story in an alternative way. This can work, but in this case, it doesn’t really hit the mark. Here, we see the tale told by the children of a Victorian ragged school, looking for some magic amongst their destitution. Charles Dickens (dressed remarkably like a Victorian Willy Wonka) appears in their school, leading their storytelling session. Whilst this is sweet in parts and the story told through childrens words perhaps makes the show more accessible to a younger audience, ultimately the affect is a diluting of the core story. As the show flicks backwards and forwards from Scrooge and his hauntings back to the school, employing this a framing device is quite jarring, not allowing us to become truly invested in Scrooge’s story as the drama stops and starts.
However, I did enjoy the attempt to convey the message that the difference of one person can make a bigger change and that little changes can be impactful. Plenty of parallels were drawn to our modern-day society, the idea that the poor are getting poorer and the rich, richer, highlighting the timelessness of Dickens’ work. In fact, the loudest audience reaction was in response to Scrooge’s line “people like me have messed things up.” A sentiment that clearly resonates with a contemporary audience.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the set design. Cinematic in its effect - as soon as you enter the auditorium you are transformed to a Dickensian scene. The large cast of children make light work of impressive scene changes, transforming a Ragged School to a yuletide scene adorned with giant paper chains in mere seconds. Time is a central theme of the show, and a large clock forms the centrepiece of the set. This is a clever visual tool as we see time literally bending in front of our eyes as the school children and Charles Dickens travel through time. The clock also provides a blank canvas for projections of snowy scenes and London skylines to transport us even further into a Dickensian world. There are some visually pleasing and joyous moments as swings and aerial hoops drop from the ceiling for Scrooge to fly across the stage on. Similarly, the use of chalk powder is used to represent magic throughout the show, despite being simple it really is an effective device, that children are sure to be impressed by.
This is not a musical - instead a play with a sprinkling of songs. Original songs composed by Eammon O’ Dwyer allow the young cast to shine as they convincingly deliver Olivia Shouler’s fun choreography. The show could have perhaps been made more family friendly by including further songs. The musical numbers are really needed to break up some of the quite wordy scenes that could possibly be too long for a family audience. This is what stops the show from truly shining. Whilst I am sure some families with older children will enjoy this as an alternative to pantomime, its hard to determine who the audience of this show really are – with it being far too wordy for a young audience yet not sophisticated or funny enough for an older audience.
Ultimately, the tale of A Christmas Carol is always going to be popular with audiences at Christmas Time. Frankie Bradshaw’s truly impressive set design will no doubt delight theatregoers and transport them to a Victorian Christmas. The accomplished and talented adult cast ensure this show is an enjoyable night at the theatre. But with a theatre scene that’s close to saturated with fun, energetic and enjoyable Christmas theatre this festive season, this show may struggle to stand out.
A Christmas Carol plays at The Rose Theatre until 2nd January 2023, tickets available here- Rose Theatre, Kingston, London
Photos by Mark Douet