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Simon Callow in A Christmas Carol
Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB
To January 12, 2019
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
Is there a name more deeply and indelibly etched into the history of English storytelling than Charles Dickens? Perhaps Shakespeare, but Shakespeare did not write Christmas stories the way Dickens did, nor did he arguably help establish the traditions of the modern British Christmas, and he certainly did not do as much to challenge his audiences to treat those less fortunate with more compassion and warmth. Thankfully beloved and consummately skilful veteran of stage and screen Simon Callow is a dab hand at both Shakespeare and Dickens and therefore presents us with the perfect cup of warming theatrical cheer by the fireside, bringing his one man production of A Christmas Carol back to The Arts Theatre in the West End this season.
Callow is masterful from beginning to end, like a Christmas Theatre spirit of past, present and future all rolled up into one, scooping us into his rich narrative robes and shepherding us on the journey through this classic festive tale. Having played Dickens himself on a number of occasions on stage and the small screen (on Doctor Who at least twice, one of the biggest draws for my 11 year old on this theatre outing!), he revives the Victorian author’s persona, with a graceful and congenial crackle in his voice as rich as the roasting chestnuts on the fire, striding to the front of the stage to set us up with the opening lines at the selfsame time as presenting us with the visual symbol of the story’s setup by taking down the apparently casually and unevenly mismatched chairs and Christmas lights at either end of the stage, narrating by way of nonchalant aside the first few assurances to us of the surety of Marley’s deadness and of the solitary way in which he and his surviving partner, the protagonist of the evening, live their lives.
Much credit for the magic of the evening must go as well to the team behind Callow though, including Tom Cairns’ set design, which subtly and gently immerses us in the spell of a foggy and cold Victorian winter, a warmed up warehouse with decorative cheer as Callow capers nimbly around the stage in turns as Scrooge, as Fezziwig and as various personae populating the parties of Christmas past, and right from a haunting and gothic graveyard where Ebenezer sees his own name on a barely remembered and untended plot back into a joyous street on Christmas morning where a reformed Scrooge canters about spreading redeemed cheer.
Callow’s performance is 80 minutes straight through without interval, but whooshes by as clear and as crisp and as lively as a breeze on a winter’s morn, or as the sprinkling of the dust of the Ghost of Christmas Present on every living ‘fellow passenger to the grave’ in the house, including my 11 year old, cynical London born-and-bred kid that he is, next to me and rapt with wonder in spite of himself wide eyed at this most classic of novellas brought to life before all our very eyes.