There can be few greater settings for Mark Gatiss’s reworking of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol than the faded Victorian grandeur of Alexandra Palace. The peeling walls and cavernous stage play host to a haunting of spectres during this spooky adaptation.
Under Adam Penford’s direction, Gatiss’s ghost-filled text brings something fresh to the numerous Dickens you can find on UK stages in the lead up to Christmas.
Indeed, this production is a pantomime antidote. Gattiss’s text is impressively true to the novella; school trips watching the play can see an upstanding version of the text with more authenticity than The Muppets’ film.
It’s Christmas eve and Jacob Marley (Peter Forbes) descends upon the hardened Ebenezer Scrooge, delivering a chilling prophecy of the consequences of unrelenting greed. Thus begins a series of visitations that will forever alter Scrooge’s life and grip the audience from the first encounter.
Keith Allen’s Scrooge is more at home once Ebeneezer’s reforming ways are realised. When the supporting characters complain of the old man’s tight, measly meanness, we haven’t seen enough of his sinful ways. Allen is good at grumpy, but less convincing as cruel.
Gatiss’s penchant for the paranormal is in full and formidable effect. The three visiting ghosts are terrifically menacing and each tableau is cleverly conceived. A genuine chill passes across the auditorium when dementor-like ghosts sweep through the audience and flood the stage. The puppetry employed to bring these spectral figures to life is nothing short of remarkable.
Towering columns of filing cabinets dwarf the actors and inventive lighting movements make use of the large space. An imposing projection of Saint Paul’s Cathedral offers another reminder of the play’s locality. This is the London of Dickens.
The exuberant chorus does a good job colouring in the scenes with Victorian style. Angelina Chudi’s portrayal of the kind-hearted Belle is particularly noteworthy, while James Backway brings a charming energy to the role of Fred. Although the Cratchit family leans more towards a twee, picture-book depiction than a fully realized characterisation, the inclusion of children lends a heartwarming touch, reinforcing the play’s family-friendly atmosphere.
While the vastness of Alexandra Palace initially threatens to overwhelm the production, the play ultimately embraces the venue’s grand scale. Actors are almost swept up on the daunting stage, and not just Tiny Tim looked small. During the ensemble scenes and when the direction takes the cast beyond the stage, the space comes alive. The final rousing scene sees a gleaming Christmas tree centre-stage and a spell of cheer and goodwill after all the supernatural frights.
This Christmas Carol brings a flavour of West End scale up the Northern line. It’s a haunting yet heartwarming adaptation that can be part of a cherished holiday tradition for many.