From Donald Duck to Bill Murray, the list of stars to have taken on the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge seems endless. A programme note informs us that the tale has been adapted across all media more than 400 times - including two current West End productions.
Patrick Stewart joins the list twice: as Dickens's famous miser in the 1991 TV movie of A Christmas Carol that shines like a good deed in a naughty TV schedule every Christmas with its authentic, ungimmicky approach. A similar style characterises his self-adapted, one-man stage show, in London for a limited season. Clad in a plain brown lounge suit and open-neck shirt, Stewart grabs a big, red This is Your Life-style edition of the book, and begins the tale with a surprising cheeriness, given the content of that famous first line: "Marley was dead, to begin with."
The famous lines are so plentiful that their arrival is awaited in the same way as one gleefully anticipates, say, Lady Bracknell's utterance of "A handbag?" in The Importance of Being Earnest. Stewart invests them all - from "Humbug!" to "God bless us!" - with twists and surprises, but always with a crowd- pleasing relish.
It's welcome indeed to see one of our finest actors swimming against the tide of trowelled-on slap and padded bras as pantomime "goes legit". And it's fascinating, too, to be in the presence of this oft-retold tale without musical numbers grafted on, dances thrown in, special effects, smoke, rattling chains, and with nary a comedy nightcap or gown in sight. Stewart's adaptation eschews all such dressing - relying only on a few scraps of furniture - and throws us back on the words where we find less sentimentality than social concern. Here, Scrooge's journey turns on Dickens's intended transcendence and redemption, rather than the popular, Calvinistic fear of death. Stewart is an easy presence, and finds plenty of fun. He wheezily kick-starts Scrooge's long-unused laugh as if hot-wiring an abandoned jalopy. His singing of the clanging chimes of the midnight hour gets dafter with each repetition.
Stewart's impressive collaborator is the lighting designer Fred Allen. Allen's fluid design combines vivid washes with delicate mood swings. The actor rides some of the designer's subtler fades vocally, and between them they pull us into the heart of the narrative. Here, the hallucinatory appearance of Jacob Marley's face in the ornate door knocker of Scrooge's house, for example, so often a special effects bunberry, is rendered here in a simple, and effective green pin spot.
Perhaps most delightful of all is the echo of the reading tours of Dickens himself, at which A Christmas Carol was a central feature. One man, a table, a chair and a beguiling narrative. This is storytelling at its simple best.
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