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John D. Huston in A Christmas Carol. Photo provided.

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol at The Gladstone

By Brian Carroll on December 20, 2017

What do you say about an actor who has played Charles Dickens over 625 times? Or rather, since 1992 has played Dickens narrating and playing all the characters in A Christmas Carol?

Three things keep John D. Huston’s performance fresh for both new and returning audience members. First, each year Huston changes the performance – adding and subtracting material from the original text. Second, he changes mannerisms, timing, emphasis and interpretations so there are always new insights into the story. Third, for first-timers, the length of the performance allows Huston to explore lesser known aspects of the story. As a consequence, audience members return for more, and tell their friends to come.

It’s with good cause that Capital Critics Circle nominated Huston as one of the 2016-2017 season’s best actors.

Many of Dickens’ characters are popular, but we tend to know them as caricatures. Scrooge is known for his miserly ways and for calling Christmas a “humbug,” but not for his youthful enthusiasms, or his disappointments, or his conversion. We know the three Spirits of Christmas (Past, Present and Future), but how many of us can name the two children hiding under the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present?

Dickens could find no publisher for A Christmas Carol. Christmas was a minor holiday. The Puritans had banished carolling from the cities, favouring hymns instead. But in the countryside where Dickens grew up, carolling and feasting still survived.

John D. Huston in A Christmas Carol. Photo supplied.

Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol in a beautiful edition that lost money. But Dickens later supplemented the royalties from his books with public performances. These started as charitable fundraisers, but became a lucrative second career. Of the 20 works that he performed, A Christmas Carol was the most popular.

While there are many productions of A Christmas Carol as a play or a film, originally Dickens acted out the story himself. Instead of investing in multiple actors, scenery and costumes, Dickens chose to invest in a different resource: the imaginations of his audience.

John D. Huston as Charles Dickens. Photo supplied.

By playing Dickens, who then plays the characters of the story, John D. Huston taps into modern audiences’ imaginations, limiting staging to a simple lectern, and his costume to a 19th century suit. Huston’s skill suffices in an era of elaborate video and theatre productions. The audience on opening night applauded with great enthusiasm at the end of his highly evocative performance.

Dickens often gets credit for animating the popular enthusiasm for Christmas celebration, feasting and gift-giving from Victorian times to the present. But he also brought attention to poverty and inequality, which are still with us today.

Like Peter Cratchit, Dickens in his youth knew the inside of a pawnbroker’s shop. His father was sent to debtors’ prison, and young Dickens had to leave school to work in a factory. These experiences feed the Spirit of Christmas Present’s admonishments to Scrooge about poverty and charity.

Yes, we no longer have debtors’ prisons and workhouses. But poverty, ill health and poor education still plague portions of our 21st century population, in spite of an all-party resolution of Canada’s Parliament to end child poverty. With A Christmas Carol, Huston and Dickens speak to issues of our own day.

Huston is assisted by guests who provide musical interludes between acts. Opening night had local singing trio The Finest Kind (Ian Robb, Ann Downey, Shelley Posen) harmonizing carols and seasonal songs, many from Dickens era. Some of these songs give the audience a chance to sing along.

While there are many productions of A Christmas Carol as a play or a film, originally Dickens acted out the story himself. Instead of investing in multiple actors, scenery and costumes, Dickens chose to invest in a different resource: the imaginations of his audience.

I want to draw attention to Ian Robb’s modern The Homeless Wassail which reinforces the Spirit of Christmas Present’s message. We are so familiar with many Christmas carols that we sometimes forget that they have a message as well as beautiful harmonies. The Homeless Wassail is a modern thinking-person’s carol.

The Finest Kind performs with Huston until December 20th. From December 21st to 23rd, harpist Susan Toman will provide the musical interludes.

This is your chance to see a bravura performance that has attracted hundreds of audiences, with many people coming back year after year. It’s a performance that stimulates the imagination, and makes this beloved story from the 19th century relevant to our own time. Bring friends.

139 minutes (including a 15 minute intermission)


A Christmas Carol by John D. Huston is playing at The Gladstone Theatre. Monday to Saturday December 18 to 23 at 7:30pm. Matinee performance Saturday December 23 at 2:30pm. Adult tickets are $39 (including HST). Senior tickets are $35. Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $23.


 

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