Charles Dickens’ wintery classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ gets wheeled out a lot every December. The novella is 175 years old and (according to good old Wikipedia) there are no fewer than 110 stage and screen adaptations of the much-loved morality tale – including my favourite ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’.
But the odds are on that you’ve never seen a version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ which opens with Alan from Accounts warbling Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ on the karaoke machine and ending with Scrooge dancing The Floss. That is until now, because Reading Between the Lines’ innovative take on the Victorian ghost story at South Street Arts Centre is unlike any you’ve likely seen before.
First of all, Scrooge is a woman, driven by writer Anna Wheatley’s passion to put women centre stage in her plays. Second of all, it’s a comedy – a properly side-splitting, face aching because you’re laughing so much comedy – set in a modern office. And there’s puppets.
It’s office Christmas party season and three members of the party planning committee keep making a break for the karaoke machine while they’re hounded and grouched over by their manager Evelyn – for whom the term Boss Bitch was probably created. So far, so “I see where this going”.
But that’s just where things get a bit meta. Our trio present a play for the office Christmas party (I’ve definitely never had that in my office), written by intern Crystal, and it’s of, you guessed it, ‘A Christmas Carol’. When they realise they need four actors to dole out all the 28 parts (and puppets!) in Crystal’s script, boss Evelyn gets drafted in as Scrooge and the fun of a play within a play starts.
The story from here on out is pretty close to tradition – Evelyn as Scrooge is horrible and miserly and mean to her clerk Bob Cratchit. On Christmas Eve she’s haunted by her dead accounting partner Marley and is shown her life by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future until she learns the errors of her ways and wakes up on Christmas morning a happy, generous person.
Our office worker characters fully embrace the stage, each chopping and changing Dickens characters and costumes every couple of minutes to put on an all-singing, all-dancing, all-action production making the most of what they have in the office.
There’s lots of layered jokes as characters in characters joke with each other, break the fourth wall, try out funny accents, do the most costume changes I’ve seen in a show, or create ‘special effects’ through deliberate on-stage prop movement. But the biggest joy comes from the incredible puppets, designed by Bek Palmer, which are each of the three ghosts – a tiny House Elf-like Christmas Past, a busty, soul-singing Christmas Present and an imposing giant-handed Grim Reaper of a Christmas Future – the only truly scary moment in the play.
The physicality of the puppets, prepared by Movement Director Rebecca Randall, is spot on. Design, characterisation and choreography merge together flawlessly with the small cast working in near-perfect sync to make the puppets walk and talk, gesture or float across the stage all at the same time – or sometimes deliberately not, but that’s the joke.
Director Hal Chambers brought creativity to all three historical plays in RBL’s ‘Conquerors Trilogy’, but here his direction feels like it comes alive. His background is at Tucked In Productions, who work with puppetry for young audiences and it’s in the playful or puppet-led elements of ‘A Christmas Carol’, where his touch really shines.
Given such a small cast and a basic set, scenery changes are embraced and become performances in their own right. Our black hoodie-clad cast jump into the roles of stage hands, moving chairs and tables in slow motion as if pushed by wind machine, or sneaking into a scene to adapt a prop.
Memories are seen through shadow puppetry, and in one extraordinary scene there is absolutely the best use of an old school overhead projector and acetate I have ever seen.
To keep things that high energy, the tiny cast flit through the Dickens character list like a Rolodex and a production this creative wouldn’t work unless the actors were strong enough to carry such multi-layered roles. Fortunately, each of the cast are extraordinary.
As Scrooge and Evelyn, Jordan Whyte excels. She sells the terror of Scrooge, fearfully awaiting the arrival of the final ghost and the warmth of an office boss who finally feels like she gets her colleagues at the end of the party.
Mark Middleton was last on stage with RBL as Henry II and he couldn’t be less magisterial as the mild-mannered, novelty tie-wearing Alan from Accounts. He gets us all laughing with his breaks of scene and a particularly memorable costume as a child, but it’s as Bob Cratchit cradling a sickly puppet Tiny Tim that he also draws a tear.
Each of the six characters Emma Denly tackles, from Heidi in HR to Scrooge’s plum-throated nephew Fred, has a full and believable life, largely thanks to her impressive range of accents, vocal ticks and facial contortions.
Intern Crystal is played by an energetic Angelina Chudi, who impresses as the voice of the vivacious, Diana Ross-like Ghost of Christmas Present and gets a big laugh as the Christmas goose – those 28 parts really do cover everything!
Throughout there is an embracing ethereal soundscape of ghostly moaning, children’s choirs, street noise effects and even a ‘Stranger Things’ homage, which all adds to build the play into a powerful and believable world.
In fact, that world was so engaging, I’d almost forgotten it was a play-within a play, until we snap back to our office characters for the end and discover that bitch boss Evelyn has had her own “theatrically-induced emotional experience” just like Scrooge and now wants to make everyone’s Christmas party go off with a Mariah Carey sound-tracked bang. It was a pretty well-telegraphed ending, but by that point, everything else was so impressive I didn’t even mind.
Reading Between the Lines increase the stakes with every production they present in Reading, but ‘A Christmas Carol’ is their most impressive yet. It’s an ingenious, witty, uproarious, warm and kind-hearted riot of a production that will leave you grinning like Scrooge on Christmas Day. Make your holidays joyful and go see it.
A Christmas Carol is at South Street Arts Centre until 30 December, performances start at 6pm, tickets are £22. Book tickets.