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.
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.