Knowledge is a burden, don’t you find? If only we could go through life ignorant of food banks, climate change and Donald Trump, how easy getting up in the morning would be. And if I didn’t already know A Christmas Carol extremely well, or indeed at all, I would probably have enjoyed the Octagon’s rendition a lot more. But I do know it. Extremely well. So, at the risk of an accusation of Scroogean critical miserliness, I shall proceed.
You tinker with an icon at your peril. Ask anyone how Scrooge is dressed when he is visited by the Spirits (I’m assuming you know the story but, if you don’t, go to the Octagon, you’ll love it ) and they’ll tell you – a long white nightshirt and a conical bed cap. Bolton’s Scrooge goes to bed in his suit, and has a rather smart red satin waistcoat which I think he would have been too mean to buy.
Ask anyone what the temperature in Scrooge’s office is and they’ll tell you it’s freezing. Spiritually and physically freezing. So, where is Bob Cratchit’s hat and fingerless gloves? Richard Colvin’s Bob looks far too comfortable. This is important because Scrooge’s ‘journey’ is from a spiritual Antarctic to the Mediterranean warmth of good deeds and the hand of friendship. But to get there, he has to be an icicle to begin with in every respect.
Marc Small plays Scrooge very ‘bah humbug’ at the start but on his retiring to bed we get quite a bit of un-Scroogean slapstick – which delights the children and leaves me cold. As cold as Scrooge should be because he hasn’t lit the fire in his bedroom.
The ghosts are charming. Robert Jackson’s Marley is exactly right, but I wish his chains looked heavier. Ruby Ablett’s Christmas Past is kindly but determined and shows Scrooge his back-story in a series of well-constructed vignettes.
Sue Devaney’s Christmas Present is exactly that, a generous jolly spirit who whisks an invisible Scrooge around the houses of people he knows where he hears himself talked about and toasted, despite what they’ve said, even at the unfortunate Cratchits.
It says something for the potency of the narrative that I felt a slight watering of the eye as Tiny Tim’s death was mooted, but it was probably something I had to drink in the interval. The warm Peroni perhaps?
In the book, Christmas Yet-To-Come is a figure “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand”. Here it is a girl of about seven-years-old from the cast of youth theatre children. Despite what I said at the beginning, it seemed appropriate – I’m not entirely reactionary, and a misty open grave beckons for Scrooge and me.
Intimations of mortality seal the change that’s been growing in Scrooge since the first ghost and now he wakes up in his bed where he’s delighted to find that it’s still Christmas Day. Huzzah! Marc Small’s humour is now entirely apt. Cut to Scrooge’s office, Boxing Day. Scrooge is resolved to play a trick on Bob and is even meaner than usual to him when he is late for work. Small plays this deliciously and we love it because we know what he’s up to. And, of course, everything is reversed. Tiny Tim lives and all is right with the world. Cue more damned eye water.
The music is traditional, familiar and well-sung by the whole cast. Ablett, Isibor and Colvin have particularly good voices and their occasional trios are thrilling. But why Isibor is carrying an electric guitar over her 1840s costume is beyond me.
Neil Duffield’s adaptation leaves plenty of scope for community involvement and Liz Cooke’s design does the job well. Although the production feels unfocused in the first act, it comes together nicely in act two and delivers much happiness for all from the redeemed Scrooge.
Scrooge is transformed by knowledge. If only the real world was like that. I wonder if Tory MP Heidi Allen, who cried in Parliament last week when she heard Frank Field’s story of his impoverished constituents living on benefits, will be inclined to take the Labour whip? I doubt it. Tears are cheap, as you know I know. Bah, humbug.
A Christmas Carol is on at the Bolton Octagon until January 13, 2018. For information, or to book tickets, visit the website.