There were ghosts in this play alright, many more than Dickens ever intended. Past, present and future but also the many phantom productions that have succumbed in this COVID-19-ravaged festive season.
At times it felt as if Gemma Bodinetz had attempted to bring the spirit of all of them into her production of A Christmas Carol, her last as artistic director of Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse theatres after a 17-year tenure. For much of its two-hour running time, writer Patrick Barlow’s adaptation was a relatively traditional period piece with carol singing and some moments of genuine drama, such as when the hideous school teacher Mr Grimes (Tom Kanji) shouts abuse at young Ebenezer (Aron Julius). Yet there were flashes of panto-esque camp from the Ghost of Christmas Present (Helen Carter), some comic puppetry in the form of Tiny Tim, and even a haunting flick of Spymonkey’s surrealist interpretation of Christmas Carol that appeared on the same stage two years ago. This gave the whole thing a slightly disjointed atmosphere.
Marley’s spectre was a conventional chain-lugging spook, for example, while the Christmases were more quirk and humour. On occasion, in a show that hopes to give panto-starved children (6+) a festive treat while having enough for the adults, the dialogue was too convoluted for the former. The business of marketing, for example, was described as “remarkably efficacious in separating credulous fools from their money”, a jibe likely to whistle over smaller heads.
Perhaps all this might have cost a further star in the reviews of a standard year. But this is not a standard year, and judged in the context of the restrictions placed on crew and cast – who were socially distanced on stage, and got round this with madcap extendable arms, shadow puppetry and smart choreography – it was nothing short of heroic.
It was a delight to see Adam Keast snivel and squirm as the miserly Scrooge; a delight to hear carols sung by a multi-talented quintet of actors; a delight to marvel at their rapid costume changes and versatility. While the ghosts of previous packed houses made the half-empty theatre feel a tad melancholy at times, despite the valiant efforts of theatre staff who had tied up empty seats with ribbon and were smiling behind the masks, the whole business of being at the Playhouse felt at once safe and communal, a reminder of the joy of sharing live performance. The economics of putting on a show in this way cannot be pretty, but it wasn’t just Ebenezer who took some Christmas cheer from the evening.
Main image: Adam Keast & Helen Carter in A Christmas Carol, Playhouse Liverpool 2020 Photo © Robert Day.
A Christmas Carol is streaming online at Liverpool Playhouse until December 24, 2020. For more information, click here.