It's Christmas Eve, late afternoon, 1842. So far, so true. But this A Christmas Carol is surely set not in Dickens's London but in Edinburgh, with Francis O'Connor's magnificent designs depicting the twisting wynds and crooked stairs of the Old Town, carved out of the castle rock.
But, as in the most vivid realisations, nothing is quite what it seems. The backdrop suddenly swings open to reveal a jagged rooftop skyline of steeples and chimneys, in front of which colourful scenes unfold with the help of a skeletal mobile structure of walkways and passages, and a revolving centrepiece.
The adaptation's author, Karen Louise Hebden, doesn't just bring Dickens's story alive, she visualises various episodes with clarity and faithfulness to the original. A series of storytellers steps out of the action, and each actor takes a variety of roles as well as providing commentary.
We're whisked through the gloomy introduction - the death seven years earlier of Jacob Marley (reassuringly popping up and down in his coffin) - to Ebenezer Scrooge's draughty, Presbyterian-like counting house, where Bob Cratchit sits scratching numbly with his quill. The carol-singers call and are coldly turned away, the charity collectors enter and are abruptly dismissed, and before you can say, "Christmas, bah humbug!", everyone departs to celebrate the festival, leaving us alone with Scrooge in his dingy dwelling.
The first experience of surreal shapes and magical transformation comes when the doorknob sprouts the face of an ET-like Jacob Marley. Soon, Marley's ghost rattles and clatters its way out of the chimney, a substantial, cobweb-covered figure (Simon Scott) dragging the chains of his miserable mortal existence behind him.
The Ghost of Christmas Past soon arrives, clad in snowy white, and as the miser's childhood and youth with his sweet sister are brought to vivid life, the excellent John Bett's Scrooge begins to lose his granite-like composure. Who could resist the delightful Fezziwig's festive frivolities as David Delve spreads a little happiness among his employees? Or Fezziwig's beautiful daughter Belle, who wins the young Scrooge's heart, only later to find it turned to stone?
A verdant Ghost of Christmas Present pulls back the curtains on the goodwill that Scrooge barely recognises. If the glimpse of the Cratchits' frugal meal is a bit overdone, Bob's bonhomie verging on the saccharine, Tiny Tim's portrayal of innate goodness and innocence tugs at the heartstrings. Scrooge's nephew Fred is played by Richard Conlon as a thoroughly good egg, a gregarious Christmas host, full of generous good nature.
The third Christmas ghost shows off the last of the spirits' highly imaginative costumes, designed by students at the Edinburgh College of Art. Christmas Yet to Come is a towering, dark and ominously silent cloaked and clawed creation. What scenes he reveals fairly chill the heart and finally melt the dour Scrooge's frozen emotions.
Traditional carols accompany each scene, performed with admirable authenticity and presented with Christmas-card prettiness, although elsewhere the musical underscoring is a little intrusive at times. The 10 principal actors work as a tight, sparkling ensemble into which two alternating teams of six members of the Lyceum Youth Theatre slip seamlessly, although not every word is entirely audible.
Making her debut with a main-house production for the Royal Lyceum, Jemima Levick directs with assurance and plenty of pace. If the opening sequence is a little over-busy, the production soon settles down and grips the young audience, several of whom around me were clearly thoroughly enjoying their first taste of Dickens. The moral of the tale is unmissable without being ground out, and the Royal Lyceum has given Edinburgh the best Christmas present in the shape of this fresh and charming production.
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