Review by Raphael Kohn
While Dickens’ famous novel A Christmas Carol feels like it is turned into annually-produced shows in so many theatres in the country this time of year, there is something rather different afoot in Birmingham’s Old Joint Stock theatre. Reduced down to 90 minutes and turned into a play-within-a-play, this new adaptation, receiving its UK premiere in Birmingham’s premier fringe venue, brings out new themes of grief and family, turning the almost tired narrative into something completely new. And you know what? It’s actually rather wonderful.
Instead of a bland adaptation, with the miserly Scrooge undergoing his transformation into the Christmas-loving man he becomes at the end of the show through the visitations of three ghosts to teach him the errors of his ways, Our Christmas Carol begins in the 21st century, with Harold (Andrew Cullum) mourning his lost wife on his first Christmas Day alone. In comes his daughter, Sylvie (Sam Carlyle), making sure her father isn’t alone all of Christmasday. But something is missing – Harold’s yearly tradition of performing A Christmas Carol with his wife is no longer possible, until Sylvie suggests the two of them recreate Harold’s old production.
So here begins the play-within-a-play, with A Christmas Carolbeing performed in Harold’s living room. Harold plays Scrooge while Sylvie plays… literally every other character, swapping between as she changes hats, coats and cloaks onstage to inhabit each character. It’s a cute mechanism, with the 21st century narrative peeking through at times to remind us of the wider narrative of the play, and it brings out the unique character of this little musical well.
Patrick Greene’s writing is sweet, if sad, letting the theme of grief permeate through enough to remind us of Harold’s narrative without dominating the storytelling of Dickens’ work. Condensed down to an interval-less 90 minutes, it becomes pacy and interesting, never losing the energy. Some songs do appear, penned by David Abbanieti, and while these are sweet in themselves they do turn up in the script slightly inconsistently, with many at the beginning, a large section without in the middle and then more towards the end. They are very bittersweet though, especially Sylvie’s first song which sets the scene wonderfully, and are a delectable addition. And despite the questionable end to the narrative (which won’t be spoiled in this review), the writing and music is generally very good.
This is all brought to life well in the small space of the Old Joint Stock by Roisin McCay-Hines’ production, which focusses its energy into the talent of the two performers without detracting away from that with unnecessary details. The simple set, hiding away a surprising array of props only for them to appear when you least expect them, is a joy, while McCay-Hines brings out the best in her performers otherwise, with wonderful chemistry between them throughout.
But who are these two performers? Playing Harold (and therefore, Scrooge as well) is Andrew Cullum, whose delight in performance comes through both as himself and also through his portrayal as Harold, whose own delight for the role mirrors his own. He nails both Harold’s hidden melancholy in his grief, and Scrooge’s misanthropic miser, in a way that shows just how perfectly cast he is in the role.
Opposite him is Sam Carlyle, given the challenge of portraying about 20 different characters all within the space of 90 minutes as she inhabits each member of the ensemble opposite Scrooge, as well as playing Sylvie. She has the remarkable talent to make each and every character believable, even through just the change of a hat to delineate each character, with her physicality and expressions doing the heavy lifting of making each and every one believable.
Carlyle is lucky to get almost all of the best moments in her part – from her first song as she delivers it twinkly-eyed and with a lovely singing voice, all the way through to the very end as she gets to perform some hilariously unexpected puppetry moments. This is fringe theatre – the puppets are simple and low-budget, and Carlyle and the production as a whole play into this brilliantly, using wooden spoons and other objects to absolutely sell the puppets.
It's not quite perfect – not everything lands well, especially the confusingly-staged scene transitions, seemingly trying to suggest Scrooge flying from the ghosts’ scenes back to his own house but simply involving Scrooge groaning and throwing his body around (unfortunately inviting stifled laughter from an audience member near me), which doesn’t land particularly well. Similarly, the odd choice to use backing tracks while a piano sits unused in the corner of the room is a shame, requiring the cast to bring the energy back to the stage as the tracks suck the energy out. It’s lucky the cast are so good, and manage to pull this off well.
But that doesn’t matter, and really I do mean it. It’s a sweet story about grief, eliciting sniffles from the crowd throughout, and is an absolute Christmas gem this holiday season. As my friend who came to the show with me said: ‘who would have thought I’d have started crying at some wooden spoons?’. Not me, for sure, but it happened, and it will happen to you too.
Our Christmas Carol plays at the Old Joint Stock Theatre until 24.12.2023. Tickets are available from: https://www.oldjointstock.co.uk/whats-on/our-christmas-carol-musical
Photos by Shipwreck Productions