Photo by David Cooper
Part of many people’s tradition at this time of year, is watching and or reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Gateway Theatre offers a chance to see it live.
The opening line of the book, the play and the movie, “Marley was dead,” is one of the shortest and best hooks to get the listener into a story. And so begins the tale of greed and redemption, with three ghosts thrown in for good measure.
For anyone familiar with the book or the Alastair Sim movie, there are lines that will ring true, harkening back to when you heard them for the first time. For anyone new to the story it is a tale that engrosses and enlightens as it weaves through a miserable miser’s past, present and future, as told by visiting ghosts on the eve of Christmas.
Michael Shamata’s adaptation retains enough to recall traditions of past Christmases while staying true to the original book yet keeping the play to a reasonable length. Dickens’ stories were originally weekly chapters in newspapers. Later, they were compiled into books so people could binge read the entire yarn. It made for plot-rich tales of some length.
As Scrooge, Russell Roberts is clearly at the top of his game. Spot on. The acting never shows. I can’t imagine him being anyone other than Scrooge. To me that’s a sign of a good actor.
Equally a stand-out is Allan Morgan as Jacob Marley, the Spirit of Christmas Present and a few other roles. Each of his characters is so different that it’s hard to believe the same person plays each. These two actors have their full palette of skills and their acting sang, ringing true every moment they were on stage.
That contrasted with the younger actors, some of whom are recent graduates of Langara’s Studio 58 theatre program. RBC’s support allows the development and nurturing of these new actors at Gateway. That some were triple threats, singing, dancing and acting, was clear throughout the play.
Another stand-out was the young actor who played Tiny Tim—not from Langara, as Janna Lamb is only nine. Her voice was clear, pure and strong. Under Rachel Peake’s direction, Lamb’s acting is believable, so believable that we couldn’t find the boy who played this key role at the reception until someone pointed her out. Lamb is someone to watch as she grows and matures in her theatrical abilities.
The live music woven throughout the play, sometimes as recognizable songs of the season, other times as background music, enriched the play beyond measure, making it something one experiences not just watches. Kudos to composer and sound designer, Joelysa Pankanea.
The sound whether dialogue, music or singing, was clear. We sat near the rear of the theatre and the dialogue sounded unamplified as if we were right near the stage—the sign of a true sound master.
Drew Facey’s set design was simple and innovative, with everything put to more than one use, standing in for multiple locations and times. It worked seamlessly.
Carmen Alatorre’s costumes were spot-on as was Itai Erdal’s lighting design—never obtrusive but always guiding the audience’s attention to the spot of the action on stage.
One rarely mentions the Stage Manager, but Lois Dawson kept everything running like clockwork with an unobtrusive grace that belied the challenge of coordinating so many actors and set changes through the play.
Unfortunately, there were a few times in the evening when the shortage of volunteers showed. Many theatre-goers are spoiled by big city professional productions like Bard on the Beach where there is an adequate supply of volunteers to offer to show you to your seat, find the coat check or let you know you don’t have to finish your pre-show drink in a few gulps because it can be labelled and left behind the concession counter for the break. One advantage of community theatre is meeting friends, neighbours and former teachers amongst the audience and the volunteers. It makes Gateway feel like our theatre.
The other time the lack of volunteers showed was at the opening night reception. Gateway was full, close to sold-out. With only enough people to staff one spot for the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel’s tasty treats, the crush of people surging around the food lacked grace.
Anna’s Cake House’s offering disappeared before many could even find it, the cake was so popular and the crowd so large.A second location and more volunteers to guide people might have helped.
Scheherazaad Cooper’s notes in the program were another stand-out. They gave not only an overview of Dickens’ story but linked the season to the many traditions and faiths’ views of this season as we approach the longest night of the year and then the coming of the light, as the days again begin to lengthen. A Christmas Carol is not a religious play but does have themes common to all traditions—kindness for others, helping the poor, and treasuring friends and family over money.
Dickens worked for social change by illuminating the consequences of personal and corporate greed. As director Rachel Peake pointed out, the institutionalized poverty of his day echoes today’s increasing gap between the few with great wealth and their power over the majority who don’t have enough to adequately house, clothe and feed their families. Whether set on our current global scale or in Victorian London, I do wonder, who will be our Dickens today to lead us toward the light?
A Christmas Carolat Gateway Theatre runs until Dec. 24.