Plum pudding, puppets and psychic renewal: A Christmas Carol, Spinning Wheel Theatre

A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ 24-hour tour into the mind of a damaged, embittered and miserly soul who is on the brink of total isolation, but whose spirit is revived by the cosmic intervention of four ghosts one fateful Christmas Eve, has become part of our national Christmas psyche. Transmuted into countless adaptations on film and TV, the story and characters feel as familiar as Christmas itself; but Spinning Wheel Theatre’s original and imaginative staging of A Christmas Carol allows us to enjoy this old story afresh, honouring its humane moral outlook – exploring what might be said to be the true Christmas spirit, the unselfish shower of joy and kindness across all kinds of poverty, whether financial or spiritual – and bringing its full wealth of scenes and characters onto a small, touring set with only three actors, assisted by a supporting cast of puppets both dramatically large and intriguingly small.

Director Amy Wyllie has created an intense and deeply moving production, with exceptionally fine performances from her three actors, Alice Osmanski, Samuel Norris and Antony Eden. While Eden gives us a surprisingly youthful, yet utterly cold-hearted and clinical Scrooge, Osmanski and Norris play a plethora of other characters, and all three turn their hands to puppetry as required. Osmanski’s beautiful diction and stage presence give each of her characters wonderful verve and immediacy, while Norris’ versatility and sense of detail continually impress, his Bob Cratchit in particular full of heartbreaking pathos. Eden negotiates Scrooge’s gradual enlightenment with judicious emotional pacing, remaining resolutely sceptical and unmoved at first while clearly implying Scrooge’s deep inner wounds, which have left him scarred with bitterness and resentment towards the world. As Scrooge takes joy in happier childhood memories, we feel as surprised as he is by encountering the happier young man he used to be: and our hope revives, along with his, that his life can and will be different again henceforward.

A rotating, opening set by Becca Gibbs mainly focuses on two huge boxes on castors, which swivel and unfold to reveal Scrooge’s bedroom, his office, or the street, with towers of books to double as stools, desks, a table, and even Scrooge’s fateful tombstone. This production is an essay in beautifully coordinated, efficient stagecraft; every action on stage leads to the next with barely a pause for lightning-quick scene changes, as characters open books which pop up with silhouettes of people or buildings, or move a picture frame to discover the Fezzywigs’ Christmas party: the set hides a myriad of further sets within it, as we discover through the night.  A lot of the action, quite naturally, simply takes place in Scrooge’s imagination: so, a snowball or two is enough to suggest his schooldays, and the ghost of his former love simply appears before him, with no especial setting required. This economy allows the story to keep moving as swiftly as it is told, developing with the surreal swiftness of Scrooge’s own visions. We are swept along with spinetingling intensity, encountering both laughter and tears along the way: and, although the production is small in scale, none of Dickens’ imagination is reduced: A Christmas Carol speaks with his full, eloquent power.

Rating: Four

Touring until 23 December: details here

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