I didn't have much time to spare when I arrived at the Castle Quarter for the production of a Christmas Carol. I wasn't exactly sure where the play was taking place, so I headed over to the Oxford Castle Unlocked. The cleaners looked at me with blank faces. Next I asked at the Malmaison reception, some staff in the square, and finally at La Tasca, but no-one could tell me where the performance was happening. By now it was 7.32pm and I was feeling a bit panicky. But a knee-high sign suggested it was definitely happening somewhere in the vicinity.
Finally I heard a voice in the darkness call out from across the square – 'Are you here for a Christmas Carol?' I headed towards a disused café that had been converted into our theatre for the week. If I had been feeling slightly disgruntled by the lack of signage, then I was immediately won over by the intimate atmosphere in the 'pop-up' theatre. Plastic garden chairs and park benches formed the seating, with high stools behind for a better view, lending it a we're-in-this-together kind of feel. Although the props were sparse and simple, they were well chosen: a four poster bed dominated one end of the stage, and a counting lectern and desk were positioned at the other. The design of the stage itself (traverse staging) meant that the audience was right in the thick of the action. I felt like a Victorian bystander going about my business on Christmas eve – a feeling made slightly more authentic by the fact it was a little chilly! The audience was seated on either side of a catwalk between two stage areas. I liked the immediacy of it, though it was a little tiring turning my head so often and I occasionally had a distractingly bright light in my eyes.
Once the play started I was immediately struck by the size of the cast – 16 actors in all, which gave the feel of a bustling winter street. Even so, much doubling up was needed, with all the characters except Scrooge and Tiny Tim playing more than one part. This was handled well, with the help of some excellent and creative costume design. (My favourite was perhaps the glowing Green Man slash Father Christmas Ghost of Christmas Present.)
I thought the performance of Colin Burnie as Scrooge was particularly fine. He really pulled off the curmudgeonly miser in the beginning, and it was poignant to watch his vulnerabilities start to surface. I really enjoyed the scene where he shouted instructions to his younger, oblivious self.
I also liked the cheeriness of Roger Dalrymple as Bob Cratchett. His warmth and good nature seemed very real, lending all the more pathos to the death scene of Tiny Tim. They handled this with a light touch, which was actually very moving (though I am a sucker for sentimentality especially if it involves children…)
I was watching the performance with my seven year-old daughter, so I was conscious of how she might find it. Although I tend to think of A Christmas Carol as a children's story, in fact, she was the only child in the audience, and the play was definitely geared towards an adult audience. Some of the Dickensian language was a little hard to follow for her – and even at times for me.
However, we both really enjoyed the play, and I think my daughter was particularly gratified by Scrooge handing her a chocolate coin in the closing scene – a small nod towards the panto season!
All in all, I think this is a great Chrismas watch. It's hard to pull off such a well-known story, but Siege managed to put their own stamp on it without any pretension. The inclusion of well-known carols throughout the play added a lovely touch of familiarity, which, along the setting and stage design, led to a very intimate and heart-warming feel. Well done!