It is a happy coincidence that Arena Theatre’s 100th production since its foundation in 1983 falls in the festive season, as it gives the chance to celebrate the landmark with this excellent version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In adapting the book, Rachael Cheeseman has been faithful to the plot, characters and often the words of the original; as director, she has been able to include touches which add life and energy to the story. Among these is the sound, which is distracting in a good way by being at once anachronistic and suitable: ‘Frosty the snowman’ at the Fezziwigs’ party, for example.
The direction makes excellent use of the small stage, with an expertly painted backcloth of the roofs of Victorian London. The most successful device, though, is a chorus of six, all of whom play other parts as well. They create scenes and tableaux (with a very effective use of freezes) in roles ranging from Scrooge’s downtrodden clerks, through chain-rattling attendants on the ghost of Jacob Marley, to the congenial Christmas companions of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.
As Scrooge, Grae Westgate is nothing short of superb. He conveys at the start that Scrooge is supremely dislikeable but not actually wicked, and makes entirely believable the character’s transformation into a philanthropic customer for enormous turkeys. A lot of the time, he is listening and silently reacting, which he does extremely well: his excited but unspoken enthusiasm to join in the ‘yes or no’ game at Fred’s party is moving. When he is speaking, he brings light and shade to the character by variation in volume and the skilful use of pauses. It is a fine, nuanced performance.
In the rest of the cast, there is not a weak link. One can ask no more of a narrator than that he looks good and speaks clearly, and Ryan Gregg achieves both. Notable among the others, Chad Echakowitz not only is a suitably bouncy and good-natured Sam, he also takes the part of young Scrooge and has a touching rapport with Belle. Belle is played by Leah Jane, who is also Mrs Cratchit, providing an unsentimental contrast to husband Bob’s deferential attitude to Scrooge. Roseanna Bowen has only a small part as Martha Cratchit, but the director wisely takes several opportunities to make use of her wonderful singing voice.
The director describes A Christmas Carol accurately in her programme notes as a ‘tale of self-discovery, forgiveness and kindness’, but sensibly – and unlike some more pretentious but less successful productions – she does not try to make it more than that. At the same time, she takes full advantage of the scope for imaginative innovations that contribute to the understanding and enjoyment of the story.
A century is a cause for celebration and congratulation, whether in life-span or on the cricket field, or indeed on the stage. I have written before that we are lucky to have Arena Theatre in our area: they challenge themselves and their audiences, they sometimes get egg on their faces, but when they are good, they are very good. And A Christmas Carol is definitely good. It runs until 23 December at 7.30 each evening.