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Andy Jones as Scrooge. Photo by John Lauener/provided by NAC.

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol at the National Arts Centre

By Colin Noden on December 9, 2017

You’re not going to get this kind of experience from any movie. Come early, and prepare to be engaged, entertained, and surprised.

The word that dominated my notes was “pace.” I guarantee you will be shocked to see that ninety-five minutes just disappear. One minute we’re having a fun conversation with the actors in the prologue (pay attention, there’s a trick in it for later); then we’re racing through something that is part play and part variety show in tempo; then we’re crying in stillness (literally, a couple behind me had to leave); then we’re laughing all together as we join in on a stand-up comedy technique that makes us all friends. Poof, 95 minutes disappeared!

The National Arts Centre’s A Christmas Carol is fast paced and clever, and as tight a production as I’ve ever seen. I simply couldn’t pull out one outstanding element in the play. Everything depended on something else to make it work. For example, the speech is rapid, and depends on the sound crew to keep us involved. The stage crew performed entertaining magic tricks and scene transformations, which depended on the lighting crew’s split-second timing. And the narration made me want to start off this review with something cheesy like, “set design by Charles Dickens”.

Oh, have you heard about the white sets? Before the play started, I read Jillian Keiley’s Director’s Notes. “We had conceived a blank canvas for the stage on which the audience would be invited to impose their own memories of the play, as well as to imagine for themselves the Dickensian London of Mr. Scrooge.” That sounded a bit like homework.

All concerns vanished as the acting brought out the child in me. Remember all the imaginary things that filled up our playtimes? I could see the children seated below me were having no problem creating a whole world from the antics of the actors. The adults were given a bit of help.

For example, when Scrooge looks through a suspended window, we see shredded white figures in a pantomime, as the side stage narrator quotes,

“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.”

I bet you’ll have no problems colouring the white stage after that description. The play is filled with these quotes from Dickens’ original writing. They deliver graphic inspiration and pay tribute to a master’s prose.

The entrance to the Babs Asper Theatre is decorated and worth a visit before the show. Photo by Colin Noden.

The forest inside the entrance to the Babs Asper Theatre is also used as inspiration on the stage. I don’t want to ruin the effect by saying more. Just remember to come a bit early and spend some time there. We were surprised at how beautiful it was in use during the play.

As I said, the production was tight and entertaining. The mood was true to Dickens’ own feeling about it, as he stated in a letter to a friend, “Over which ‘Christmas Carol’ Charles Dickens wept and laughed and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition…”

Excited, in a most extraordinary manner. That’s a nice way to leave a theatre.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is playing at the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre December 5-24, 2017. Tickets are available online, and both Live Rush and Student Discounts are available. Evening shows start at 7:30pm, weekend matinees are at 2pm.