Outside of Shakespeare, there can be few literary works that have been reimagined more often than A Christmas Carol, and Octagon Theatre Bolton’s musical take is definitely one for families.
Kate Ferguson and Susannah Pearse’s adaptation focusses on bringing out the humour in the story, with comical characterisation and plenty of ironic asides. The Ghost of Christmas Present is transformed from a jolly bearded giant into an excitable, bike-riding spirit dressed as a Christmas tree, who flings handfuls of snow over audience members and performs a disco-inspired number about Christmas pudding. Then there’s the Fezziwig Christmas party, which has the audience out of their seats joining in a TikTok-worthy dance routine. There may be a sad lack of muppets, but there’s still plenty of laughs.
In spite of this, the serious moments do hit home. Pivotal scenes with Fan, Scrooge’s beloved sister, and his fiancée, Belle, are poignantly performed. Although lots of the script has been modernised, the most famous lines have been preserved, and Dickens’ timeless writing still has the power to move – Scrooge’s heartless response to the predicament of the poor and homeless (that they had better die and ‘decrease the surplus population’) is particularly chilling in light of the current economic crisis.
As befits one of the world’s most famous ghost stories, there are some scares. Marley’s first fleeting appearance from the shadows is genuinely frightening, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is impactful as a creepy, hooded figure, wordlessly directing a rapid montage of reactions to Scrooge’s death from the stairs above the stage.
The whole play is performed by a cast of just six actors (plus one young company member), who not only jump between multiple character and ensemble roles, but also provide all the sung vocals and play instruments live onstage – including the giant chimes that act as the ominous striking of a clock. This, coupled with the in the round staging, means that they work incredibly hard to keep up the pace, but it does start to feel chaotic and they look rather frazzled by the end of the show.
The music itself uses traditional instruments and melodies that suit the Victorian London aesthetic, but unfortunately the sound levels on the night frequently prevented me from hearing a lot of the lyrics. When you take into account the sheer volume of songs in the piece, this becomes an issue. I also personally feel that there are too many musical numbers and that they are often employed at the expense of the action – we dwell longer at the Cratchit’s house on the song about their Christmas goose than on Tiny Tim’s illness, and the sombre, unsettling atmosphere created by Scrooge’s graveside scene is somewhat undermined by him breaking into song.
Scrooge (Laurie Jamieson) is depicted not ‘hard and sharp as flint’ but as a grumpy introvert who has – by his own description in the play – had to make some hard choices in life. This sympathetic portrayal, which ties into the comic tone of the production, means that we don’t see him radically transform as a result of his experiences on Christmas Eve – which surely is the most magical part of the whole story. The editing out of his trick on Bob Cratchit – switching suddenly from his role as miserly employer to generous friend – is a real disappointment.
This production is fun, entertaining and performed by a diligent, multi-talented cast. Literary purists like myself might raise eyebrows at some of the production’s choices, but it’s like elastic – even when stretched beyond the bounds of its original shape, it still manages to spring back.
A Christmas Carol is at Octagon Theatre, Bolton from 17 November 2022 to 14 January 2023. Age guidance 5+