The first ever Christmas production at Merseyside’s impressive new Shakespeare North Playhouse is an object lesson in how to retain the period charm of a well-loved classic while updating the work to engage with modern audiences.
It is a well-judged mix of traditional period acting, ghost story, panto and comedy that makes full use of the Playhouse’s intimate, 17th century-style ‘in the round’ format to immerse its multi-generational audience in the on-stage action and in a serious dose of festive spirit.
Those audiences arrive to a stage dressed as a Victorian kitchen; copper pots and pans suspended from the soaring ceiling, a stove chuffing smoke. Four of Scrooge’s servants (who knew his household was so big?) are discussing the master’s apparent Damascene conversion into a nice bloke overnight, and with trepidation decide to act out the tale of what they hear has unfolded. Back and forth we then go, between servants narrating or debating the sequence of events and Scrooge (Zoe West) meeting his ghostly life coaches, all played by the same team of four versatile and thoroughly likeable actors.
It would be wrong to spoiler the ghosts’ arrival, but there were some genuinely creepy moments thanks to some inventive staging and a balloon. There was also comedy, such as when Christmas Past (Jessica Dives) appeared to be channelling the French castle guards from Monty Python and the Holy Grail after taking Ebenezer to the wrong person’s youth: “Your mother looked a lot like a walnut in a hat.” A mute Ghost of Christmas Future (Eddy Westbury) generated further audible chuckles in act two, as he tried to communicate his dire warnings by typing messages into and then holding out a smartphone only to discover that autocorrect fails meant he’d told Scrooge to mend his “wafers” or he will be “Alan” forever.
All of this was blended in way that really should not have worked, but did, with a brief but quite profound passage of social commentary about the cost of living crisis as the voices of Prescot locals emerged from a wrapped gift to tell their stories of battling to make ends meet. Judged wrongly, this could have been the moment that brought the show’s momentum shuddering to a cringeworthy halt, but Christmas Present (Abigail Middleton) did an admirable job of switching the mood back and forth between sincere and silly.
A panoply of original songs, performed with double bass, tenor sax and gusto by the same cast of four, also helped to keep energy levels high, and although the acoustics of the venue meant that some of the faster-paced lyrics were a little tricky in places to follow, the message was clear: accessible, contemporary and enormously fun modern theatre does not need to strip a work of its original spirit in order to find its own.
Main image used with permission from Shakespeare North
A Christmas Carol is at Shakespeare North until January 7, 2023. Please click here for details on show times and ticket prices.
This review was also published in the i.