Face puce with the strain of it, blurry eyes bulging, the man heaves forth a series of volcanic choking sounds, 'yerhung . . . yerhung . . . yerhung . . .': it could be a beginner's first anxious steps towards mastering Japanese, if the procedure didn't look so much like someone trying to give oral birth to a bouncing baby elephant. Then, suddenly, throwing his head back in triumph, the man is delivered of a long, loud laugh. Not one for the record books, true, but, 'Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh.'
In such manner does Patrick Stewart graphically impersonate Scrooge's relieved re-entry into life and his pivotal change of heart in his one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol. Those of us who dislike being fed novels and novellas in this way, preferring to arrive at our own less inflexible choices over tone and pace, are generally prepared to make an exception for the works of Dickens. And this is because his fiction is, to such a flamboyant degree, a one-man show in itself.
The programme for Stewart's adaptation reprints the famous eye-witness account by Dickens's daughter of her father's theatrical methods of composition; the way he would rush from furious scribbling at his desk to a mirror wherein he could be seen making facial contortions and muttering to himself. It's no wonder that the products of this pantomimic creativity lend themselves so well to solo performance, as Dickens's own sell-out readings made plain. A Christmas Carol remained his quintessential item: it was the first public reading he ever gave and it was the main feature in his 'final' farewell recital of 1870.
Apeing everything - from the blind folk who, whenever Scrooge approaches, are precipitately tugged into doorways by their thoughtful dogs, to the joyously clanging bells that peal out on Christmas Day - Stewart makes the largely bare stage teemingly populous and Scrooge's visions darkly palpable. It's a pity, though, that he can't bring himself to tone down Dickens's bullyingly sentimental portrait of the Cratchit family. As Stewart impersonates them - with Bob and wife droopy cartoons of chronic meekness; the middle children clutching their temples in ecstatic anticipation of the Christmas sage and onion - it merely increases your discomfort at the fact that Dickens felt obliged to make the poor so thoroughly 'deserving' before he could present them as deserving of better. It also brings home the political cautiousness of the piece. It's fine that Scrooge turns into his oppressed clerk's fairy godfather, but you can't run a society on the basis that this sort of thing will become a daily occurrence.
Dame Edna made a good crack on her recent Hollywood show when she described someone as looking nearly as old as the second cast of Star Trek. But even the most confirmed non-Trekkie would have to grant that Stewart - on leave now from the Starship Enterprise - has, in the flesh, a spry agelessness that suits the multiple role-playing this piece demands. Aided by Fred Allen's subtle lighting design, he gives a near tragic dimension to Scrooge's journey of self-discovery. The scenes in which the miser revisits the emotionally deprived past that has formed him are powerfully affecting; you feel the painful autobiographical tug that, arguably, made Dickens cut this section from his own reading.
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