Theatre Review – Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Justin Haigh

Photo by Laura Dittman

This stripped down, 85-minute version of Dickens’ beloved Christmas classic is even better the second time round. I mean stripped down in the best possible way, because Justin Haigh’s adaptation focuses on the key events of the novella, which, in reality, is really all you need to know. Clean, precise and to the point, the play is a marvel of getting a story told without clutter.

Not only is the tight script a notable achievement, there is also the setting. The performance takes place at the Campbell House Museum, one of the few buildings from the original town of York that has survived Toronto’s relentless urban development. To be in a historic building, and watch the story unfold, places you right into Dickens’ timeframe. The Campbell House dates back to 1822, so the Victorian costumes are picture perfect (although a bit scrambled from all over the century). In creating his script, Haigh clearly had to write with specific rooms in mind. Thus, the audience moves up, down and all around the house, but to see the Cratchit family in their humble kitchen with the big open fireplace, or Scrooge in his austere bedroom, or the Fezziwigs and their guests in their graceful drawing room, adds so much to the experience. Scrooge actually opens the front door and calls to an actor outside to get the goose to bring to the Cratchits. The audience and the actors are literally living the story together.

The cast is fourteen strong, and except for Scrooge (Thomas Gough) and Marley (Marcel Dragonieri), everyone else performs multiple roles. Given the structure of the story, the production rests on the strength of Scrooge’s performance, and Gough is excellent with his crusty, yet refined manner. His finding truth and change of heart is absolutely believable, and there is a nicely crafted arc to his character. Another standout is Scrooge’s lost love Belle (Heather Marie Annis) who adds a real touch of pathos. The rest of the cast shows an enthusiasm for their roles that is infectious.

Director Sarah Thorpe probably had to work out a flow chart using the back stairways to figure out who has to be where and in what costume and at what time. She has taken a naturalistic approach to characterization so the performers fit perfectly with the house. In his adaptation, Haigh has cleverly selected Marley to lead us to the various performance rooms and that works, because it is Marley, after all, who sets Scrooge on his journey. As the tour guide, so to speak, Marley/Dragonieri plays things very tongue-in-cheek, and is quite amusing with his gestures and facial expressions as he beckons us silently on to the next scene.

Photo by Laura Dittman

The music element, arranged or composed by Pratik Gandhi, adds both melancholy and joy. Violinist Cihang Ma provides the sadness with her two solos, while the cast gets to sing an amusing and somewhat naughty song (“Old Nick’s Brew”), with lyrics by Haigh and music by Pratik, at the Fezziwigs’ party. Of course, there has to be a rousing Christmas song, and that is “Here We Come A-Caroling” with new lyrics by Haigh.

There is one thing Haigh includes in the script that bothered me last year, and disturbed me even more this year. When poor Lydia Berryman (Aliya Hamid) comes to Scrooge to beg for more time before he forecloses on the mortgage, he tells her to turn around and bend over, which has, of course, all kinds of perverted sexual overtones. He does that to use her back to write on, signing the mortgage paper, but it is a shocking order, nonetheless, and does not figure one iota into Scrooge’s character. Haigh should excise these lines from the play and just have Scrooge sign the paper in another way. It is the only thing that jars, or seems out of place, in an otherwise beautifully crafted script.

The idea of mounting A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum is pure genius. Let us hope the play will be performed there for many years to come (and hopefully, with a new and unified costume design).

The Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Justin Haigh, directed by Sarah Thorpe, Campbell House Museum, Nov. 30 to Dec. 22, 2019.

ARCHIVES – THEATRE THAT OPENED IN FEBRUARY.2014

 (5 Star Rating System)

shrewRed One Theatre Collective. SHREW (2 ½ stars). This production is vibrant and silly at the same time. In short, it is a young person’s spin on Shakespeare (think Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler in terms of sensibility). Obviously, a bunch of friends have come together to have fun, and while the audience has fun too, somewhere Shakespeare has become lost in the colloquial rendering of the text. As to why Petruchio (Benjamin Blais) has a cowboy accent is anyone’s guess, although the Christopher Sly prologue as a puppet show is a neat idea. There are a lot of talented actors in the cast, particularly John Fleming as Tranio, but director Tyrone Savage (all grown up after playing a kid on the TV series Wind at My Back) just seems to be throwing a barrage of ideas out there to see what will stick. (Written by William Shakespeare (sort of), directed by Tyrone Savage, Storefront Theatre, Closes Mar. 2, 2014, www.redonetheatre.com.)

Theatrefront /Canadian Stage/Theatre Aquarius. TRIBES (3 ½ stars.) British playwright Nina Raine has concocted a totally dysfunctional family of intellectuals. At the core is a deaf son Billy (aurally impaired America actor Stephen Drabicki) who has been brought up without sign language, the rationale being that living as if there is no disability is better for him. Both parents and the other son and daughter each have their own hang-ups. The family’s universe really starts crumbling when Billy meets a girl (Holly Lewis) who initiates him into the world of the deaf, and opens a fissure between Billy and his family. The acting is very good and Daryl Cloran’s directing is fast-paced, even dizzying at times, but the play has a feel of being too clever by half. There are just too many subplots swirling around. (Written by Nina Raine, directed by Daryl Cloran, Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, Closes Mar. 2, 2014, www.theatrefront.com.)

Afterplay Collective/Campbell House Museum. AFTERPLAY (4 stars). This play by famed writer Brian Friel is very clever indeed. He has taken the put-upon brother Andrey from The Three Sisters (Steve Cumyn), and the over-looked Sonya from Uncle Vanya (Tracey Ferencz) and has them meet in a restaurant of a Moscow Hotel. He has thus created a new Chekhov play. The intimate setting at Campbell House is perfect because the antique look of the upstairs drawing room provides a realistic site specific venue. This play can be a lot of talk (about lives before and after the respective plays), so what is needed is superb characterizations. Both Cumyn and Ferencz are Stratford/Shaw veterans, seasoned pros who are consummate actors, and clearly, both they and director Kyra Harper have worked hard to breathe life into the wordage. My one cavil is that they stand up and move around too much without motivation. That being said, the samovar tea and Russian cakes served before hand is a nice touch that makes the performance even more satisfying. The experience (tea plus play) is delightful. (Written by Brian Friel, directed by Kyra Harper, Closes Mar. 2, 2014, www.campbellhousemuseum.ca.)

Mirvish Productions/Vesturport/Lyric Hammersmith. METAMORPHOSIS (5 stars). In a word, this Icelandic/British production is brilliant. The adapters have taken Kafka’s 1915 novel and transformed it into a wondrous play full of visual surprises. Kafka, being Kafka, the story is depressing. One day, Gregor Samsa (Björn Thors) wakes up and discovers he has become an insect. It can only go downhill from here as his family tries to cope with the tragedy. The direction for Thors is masterful as he climbs his ways up and down walls by handgrips. Börkur Jónsson’s innovative turn-on-the-side bedroom set is miraculous in concept. The characterizations are superb, and FYI, these Icelandic actors have better diction than most English-speaking born thespians. A definite run don’t walk. The best kind of European theatre. (Written by Franz Kafka, adapted and directed by David Farr and Gísli Orn Gardarsson, Closes Mar. 9, 2014, Royal Alexandra Theatre, www.mirvish.com.)

Mirvish Productions. THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F. (3 ½ stars). This is a hard show to rate because the subject matter cuts to the sentimental bone – namely, the performers are mostly British soldiers who have been physically and/or emotionally scarred by war. Nonetheless, one can’t get around the fact that the acting is uneven, with some accents being impenetrable. Charlie F. is a devised play that began with the soldiers’ own stories, crafted into a theatrical production by writer Owen Sheers. Although the soldiers are mostly playing themselves, they have been given fictionalized names to make the venture more theatrical. Despite the harrowing nature of their stories, there is a lot of humour, and even original songs. This recovery play is a journey through recruitment, training, and physio, leading up to the men and women coping with their injuries. The Two Worlds of Charlie F. wears its heart on its sleeve.  (Written by Owen Sheers, directed by Stephen Rayne, Closes Mar. 9, 2014, Princess of Wales Theatre, www.mirvish.com.)