TIM WALKER reviews A Christmas Carol at the Charles Dickens Museum.
When A Christmas Carol is done really well – and Dominic Gerrard does it sublimely – members of the audience are compelled to play the part of Scrooge, albeit passively from their seats. This powerful work ought always to grab hold of everyone out there, give them a good shake, and put them on notice that they’d better be a lot nicer to each other or there’ll be hell to pay.
There are other pieces that issue the same stark warning – one thinks of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – but none of them can pack the punch of Charles Dickens. The structure of it alone is a work of genius: the ghosts that look at the past, present and future of poor old Scrooge divide it up perfectly and give it a natural momentum. There is also the mounting sense of dread that comes with the impending arrival of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Sadly, there is a little bit of Scrooge in every one of us – sometimes all too much – and, with more people begging on the streets than ever and our leaders in Westminster preoccupied with their own careers and agendas, the story has particular resonance this Christmas. The London of Dickens is, for sure, becoming hideously similar to the London of Theresa May: different times, comparable values.
The highly accomplished Gerrard, with his director Tim Carroll, violinist Alexis Bennett and puppet-maker Mandarava, have together created a production that shines as brightly as a well-polished bauble on a Christmas tree. Gerrard, who has also adroitly adapted the work, has an unerring eye for the humanity in Dickens’ characters and he communicates their frailty, eccentricity, cruelty and kindness with almost unnerving authenticity. He is especially moving as the young Scrooge, telling his sweetheart that money matters to him more than love.
His puppet of Scrooge – a great hollow-eyed ogre at the start, but with Gerrard’s expert handling, a kinder, gentler presence at the end – is a coup de théâtre, but of course the actor is ultimately out there on his own, in an intimate venue with every facial movement being scrutinised. The sheer power of his acting makes the show an emphatic and glorious triumph and worthy of the stage at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens once lived with his family.
I happened to catch, too, Simon Callow reviving all the same roles in a rival production directed by Tom Cairns at the Arts Theatre, and, of course, the venerable actor is great, but I had a sense for the first time in years that he can no longer claim the work he knows so well as his by divine right. There is a young usurper on the block in Gerrard and he is every bit as good, if not better.
Only Gerrard could make me shed a tear as he said at the end of his performance, of the enlightened Scrooge: ‘And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well.’ Let that be said of all of us this year.
• A Christmas Carol runs at the Charles Dickens Museum, London until December 31.