York’s dark streets lit up by brilliant Christmas Carol

17 Dec 2012 @ 11.10 am
| Entertainment
"So many memorable moments…" A Christmas Carol by Nightshade Productions
Review: A Christmas Carol
Venue: York city centre, December 14

York’s ancient streets are again the backdrop for the latest triumph from Nightshade Productions. How could this youthful and innovative ensemble follow the frothy brilliance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the city’s cultural high points of the year?

The answer is simple: match the dark nights of York with an even darker promenade theatre experience, an engaging adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Writer Damian Freddi’s clever manipulation of the Dickens’ classic – and director Amos D Jacob’s deft direction – honours the original, but allows a cast of just ten to deliver a character-packed Victorian world in a series of moving vignettes, with most players popping up in two or three guises.

Much of the brilliance of this piece lies in the team’s ability to immerse the audience in the experience right from the start. Admittedly, the freezing cold and icy wind play their part too, as we huddle together, bonding like old friends, as gloves, scarves and period headgear is handed out to us. We are part of the team too; it is us, warmly wrapped up, against the world.

That world comprises screeching traffic, ghost-walking interlopers, drunken revellers, noisy pubs, night-flying helicopters and police sirens, your basic night-time York in fact; this team needs everyone on board.
The programme promises a “gritty northern Scrooge” – and John Hoyland delivers exactly that, the personification of stony-faced parsimony.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know the story of this morality tale of despair and redemption? Hard-hearted Scrooge is presented with a series of real and imagined scenes to show how he could have made a difference to so many lives, not least to that of Bob Cratchit (a thoughtful, struggling everyman, Pete Watts), and Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim (inspired casting of the vulnerable Sarah Harper).

The narration is a relay led by Charles Dickens himself (David Phillipps), quickly passed to Jacob Marley (James Witchwood), and on to the ghosts of Christmas Past (Harper again), Christmas Present (writer Freddi in a skittish portrayal) and Christmas Future (Witchwood again), and back to Dickens.

It is Witchwood’s Marley, though, who steals the earliest scenes, a manic, thrilling, compelling performance – surely a future edgy Bond villain waiting to be discovered.

He springs up behind the railings where Patrick Pool and Newgate Market meet, chilling Scrooge – and us – to the bone.

And so the scenes play out in familiar locations, but each backdrop adds a different slant to a story we think we know so well: bustle in the market; the lowering gloom as distraught Tim breaks down in despair by the Roman column near the Minster; spooky menace as contrite Scrooge faces his own funeral with no mourners, in Coffee Yard outside Barley Hall, as an accordian-playing busker – who has nothing to do with the show – gives his atmospheric Paint It Black and Norwegian Wood, drifting over from Stonegate; gender-swapped comic relief as Mr Scrape and Miss Krillington (Mandy Newby and Joe Peach) stop traffic near La Tasca, Finkle Street; nicely observed cameos from Mrs Cratchit/Belle (Riana Duce), and Cratchit’s nephew Fred (Nathan Unthank, doubling as assistant stage manager). So many memorable moments.

The stand-out shock of Marley’s first appearance, is later matched for drama by the touching turning point when Scrooge is presented with the imagined grave of Tiny Tim. The scene, in the swirling gloom of Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, is beautifully lit and a fitting moment to mention stage manager Lesley Anne Tonks Brown (a latterday Dickensian name if ever we heard one).

Effortlessly wheelbarrowing props, lights and effects materials from location to location, she was an unseen star, a hidden theatrical ghost who helped spirit Dickens into the heart of the city on his 200th anniversary.