Dickens’ classic tale of yuletide redemption was set in 1842, one of the most tumultuous years in British revolutionary history.
That summer, the Plug Plot riots had brought industry to a virtual standstill following the rejection of the Chartists’ second petition, signed by three million, calling for working class suffrage. It was the high watermark of Chartist agitation, and the closest the country had ever come to a general strike.
A Christmas Carol’s call to the wealthy for a kinder treatment of the poor, then, was not only an act of Christian charity, but a desperate plea for them to save their own skin, to convince them that the workhouse alone would never be enough to contain this mass of human misery.
Smoking Apples’ treatment of the classic story is both faithful to the original, and highly innovative. Dickens’ powerful prose is centre stage, as it should be, its meaning rendered comprehensible to younger minds by sheer force of imagery. The sets are astounding and ingenious, beautifully evocative of both the streets and the interiors of Victorian Britain.
The opening scene is a raucous celebration of the culture of working class London, which begins even before the curtains open as various street urchins and ne’er-do-wells work the crowd in an attempt to part them from their hard-earned cash, with mandolin and accordion adding subtle atmospherics to the festivities before breaking out into full blown songs.
We are also treated to the full range of puppetry, from the marionettes of Tickfords’ Travelling Tales - whose ‘show within a show’ introduces us to the themes of the story - to the full blown, multi-operator ghosts themselves, each of which is a spectacular work of art in its own right.
The baby-faced Christmas Past evokes a freakishly spectral Chucky, whilst Christmas Present is a gloriously gluttonous mass of malicious jollity. Christmas Future, however, is genuinely awe-inspiring, a ten-foot, wordless embodiment of foreboding, who communicates only through gesture, revelation and eerie whistling shrieks. Along the way, we are also treated to a tender performance of exquisite shadow puppetry, to illustrate the tragic romance between Scrooge and his wife, as well as an intimately rendered Tiny Tim puppet made entirely of assorted cooking items.
Of course, no Christmas show would be complete without some camped-up buffoonery, and one of my kids’ favourite scenes came in the form of the debauched revelry of two upper class twits, feeding themselves into oblivion to illustrate Scrooge’s own greed. It is a testament to both Dickens and Smoking Apples that this scene manages to be simultaneously the most viscerally silly and the most philosophically sophisticated moment of the whole play. For it is here, through the Ghost of Christmas Present’s equation between Scrooge’s hoarding and the vulgar bingeing of our two gluttons, that the whole bourgeois ideology of thrift is challenged. Money greedily hoarded rather than put into circulation is money wasted - and “waste is waste,” he tells us, and “greed is greed.” Thus we bear witness to perhaps the most significant ideological development of nineteenth century Britain - an outright attack on the previous cardinal value of thrift, to be replaced by the new dictum, spending is good. Is this, perhaps, the birth of consumer culture?
Underneath all this, however, is of course a far more simple truth - that life is short, and the way to appreciate it best is through a generous and compassionate attitude to each other. At one point, the narrator poses the question: why, in a season of festivity and warmth, does this tale of miserliness and misery continue to have such resonance? As my six-year old told me afterwards: “I liked it when everyone was happy again.” A brilliant execution of a classic story, on many levels, for both children and adults. Thoroughly recommended.