Review: A Christmas Carol at Liverpool Playhouse ****
It’s nine months since actors – the feisty female leads of SIX the Musical – last trod the stage at the Liverpool Playhouse and Covid turned British theatreland dark overnight.
So despite the blocks of empty seats, roped off with ribbons in the theatre’s blue and gold colour scheme, despite the temperature checks and one way systems and all the other signs of our new socially distanced existence, there’s a palpable sense of emotion in the auditorium this Christmas.
Like many others who are allowed to stage live shows under the current Tier system, the Playhouse has plumped for A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ 1843 tale with its 2020 resonances of loss and loneliness, of social injustice and community spirit, of redemption and – most importantly - of hope.
As Scrooge says, following his Damascene conversion, “we are all of us upon this Earth a great family all together.”
Two years ago, Spymonkey brought its singular version of the classic to the same stage, so inevitably a shadow of comparison loiters in the background.
Artistic director Gemma Bodinetz, directing her last show before she leaves the Everyman and Playhouse, has turned to Patrick Barlow’s adaptation for this particular production.
Above: The cast of A Christmas Carol. Top: Adam Keast as Scrooge. Photos by Robert Day
It calls for a pocket-sized cast of five (ideal for economies of scale and backstage social distancing) and, like Barlow’s The 39 Steps, relies on minimal props and plenty of imagination to create maximum storytelling. Albeit the action is a little less frenetic than that of the Buchan thriller.
Aron Julius, Helen Carter, Emily Pithon and Tom Kanji are Actors 2-5 respectively and take on the myriad of characters past and present who swirl around Adam Keast’s Scrooge.
The buoyant Keast is normally to be found up the road in rock ‘n’ roll panto at this time of year - save the season when the show decamped to Williamson Square and he ascended, memorably, into the gods dressed as a lobster.
He brings his trademark malleable physical and vocal skills to this latest role, chewing Scrooge’s humbug with almost panto-esque alacrity, although his miser isn’t quite as miserable and misanthropic as some versions.
While the first half could perhaps benefit from a little more vim, the second certainly fires on all cylinders, fuelled by Helen Carter’s big voiced, sparkly showgirl Ghost of Christmas Present, Tom Kanji’s quickfire Cratchit character swapping and a beautifully realised Tiny Tim straight out of the Kneehigh toy box.
Aron Julius as Marley's Ghost. Photo by Robert Day
Meanwhile Scrooge’s redemption and new-found joie de vivre brings with it that most joyous of all Christmas soundtracks – children’s delighted laughter – echoing around the auditorium.
Covid safe rules inevitably lead to some constraints in the storytelling, but the creative team has gone to impressive and detailed lengths to keep the actors apart but the action together. And there are some knowing visual nods to the current situation, including the neat conceit of a telescopic arm, woven into the production’s fabric.
Staging any show for an audience this season is a triumph over adversity, and this A Christmas Carol is no exception.
If you go home with anything less than a smile on your face you’ve probably eaten too many humbugs and not nearly enough mince pies.