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A Christmas Carol (Susan Elkin reviews)

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ classic story adapted and updated by Chickenshed
society/company: Chickenshed
performance date: 30 Nov 2018
venue: Chickenshed Theatre, Chase Side, Southgate, London N14 4PE
This imaginative show is Dickens as you’ve never seen it before.

Director/writer Lou Stein and composer Dave Carey have shifted it to the 1930s so that the story of Scrooge as an exploitative textile factory owner is set against the depression, campaigns for equal pay for women and rumblings of an impending war. And they manage to do all this while still retaining some of the most iconic lines and scenes in the original. It’s neat, clever and effective.

And because this is Chickenshed it’s ensemble, ensemble, ensemble with some talented adults (mostly former Chickenshed members who have stayed on as staff) glueing the production together. Each performance features 200 cast members with an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. This is, after all, “Theatre changing lives”. I saw the “Blue rota” but there are also red, yellow and green rotas who appear on other nights. In total Stein and his colleagues are working with 800 performers on this show which is crazy but with supremely efficient organisation and discipline they make it work extraordinarily well

The advantage, of course, of having such huge numbers is that with skilled choreography (by a team of five) you can create some stunning scenes and tableaux – and, by golly, they do from the jolly dance scene in Mr Fezziwig’s to the darkly lit ghost scenes with actors dressed in William Fricker’s fabulous greenish grey chain-festooned rags. It also means you can create lots of “bit” parts so we hear lots of these performers singing just a solo verse or two. Of course they’re not professionals but they’re well trained and achieve, generally a high standard.

Carey’s enjoyable music – played live but out of sight from an over-stage gallery and led by him on keys – is firmly in period with lots of jazzy rhythms. Once or twice it feels as if we’re about to waltz off into Me and My Girl but all music is imitative to a greater or lesser extent.

Ashley Driver is a fine Scrooge: gruff, irascible, scowling outrageously unreasonable and then gradually softening as the visitations work their transformational magic. At one point, having stomped about crossly for a long time, he does a little dance of glee and it’s a lovely moment. Michael Bossisse, looking wonderful in white fur, is a vibrant Ghost of Christmas Present and Gemilla Shamruk sings beautifully as the Ghost of Christmas Past. I liked Paul Harris’s richly voiced Marley too.

This show is integrally signed which is always a joy to see. Belinda McGuirk is a wonderfully expressive signer and she’s often joined, or replaced, by other cast members sometimes from side stage and sometimes from within the action. I admire both the inclusivity and the way it’s so fluidly integrated so that the signing becomes an enjoyable part of the show in its own right.

Chickenshed triumphs yet again. And “A Merry Christmas to us all” as Tiny Tim puts it.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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