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Photo by Amy Rose, from the Apt613 flickr pool.

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol at The Gladstone

By Brian Carroll on December 20, 2016

Photo from John D. Huston's website.

Photo from John D. Huston’s website.

It is easy to think of A Christmas Carol as a seasonal classic – a traditional piece cast in amber, comfortable like an old sweater. But in the right hands, a contemporary production can give us new insights into an old text. John D. Huston’s performance of the Christmas redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is one such production.

While his publication in 1843 of A Christmas Carol was a critical success, it provided Dickens only meagre financial returns. However, his dramatic presentations of his own works, particularly A Christmas Carol, gave him financial success that publication alone did not.

This show is subtitled “as originally performed by Mr. Charles Dickens”. Dickens reputedly made “free use of gesticulation” and treated “every fragment of the dialogue dramatically”. Huston playing Dickens performing A Christmas Carol lives up to that reputation. He also bears a striking physical resemblance to the author.

Like Dickens, Huston performs A Christmas Carol solo. Huston plays all the characters with split-second changes of voice, facial expression and mannerisms. He applies his skills as much to portraying major characters (like Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley and the three Ghosts of Christmas) as he does to minor characters like Scrooge’s niece-in-law’s “plump sister with the lace tucker” or the fiddler at the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party. Whether their time on stage is long or short, Huston embellishes Dickens’ words to paint pictures in our minds for each one.

It isn’t just the many people that Huston portrays in this performance. He applies as much craft to inanimate objects as well. The city clocks, the local church bell, the gravy hissing in the pan, and the pudding in the copper – each gets its own voice. Huston makes them characters in their own right.

This attention to characterization of large and small roles in solo performance won Huston a Capital Critics Circle nomination for best actor for his show Screwtape in 2015. A Christmas Carol confirms that critical judgement of his abilities.

Huston has performed A Christmas Carol for 25 years, but he still brings a freshness to his portrayal that makes the audience chuckle at the jokes. He keeps the audience’s attention, which leads to new insights into an old work. When the Ghost of Christmas Present names the children under his robe (the boy, Ignorance, and the girl, Want), recent events give this old text fresh meaning and relevance. “But most of all, beware this boy.”

There is music interspersed during the performance. For December 18th to 21st, the a cappella trio Finest Kind sings carols, both familiar and less known, set to tunes that Dickens might have heard as he toured the British countryside (especially Yorkshire). The songs celebrate Christ’s birth, the promise of his legacy and the coming of the New Year. But there is also a poignancy in Ian Robb’s composition “The Homeless Wassail” that complements the Ghost of Christmas Present’s two ominous children.

On December 22nd and 23rd, harpist Susan Toman performs with Huston.

Huston brings fresh insight to an old classic, and entertains to boot. The opening night audience gave him and Finest Kind a well-deserved standing ovation.

A Christmas Carol, presented by Black Sheep Theatre, is playing at The Gladstone Theatre. Sunday to Friday, December 18-23 at 7:00PM. Tickets are $38 (adult) , $34 (senior) and $22 (student/artist/unwaged).

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