Peter Hinton is onto something: with a single bold stroke, he has lifted the NAC English Theatre from its previous status as a roadhouse that exhibited and dabbled in theatre productions by the grace of itinerant mercenaries and long-suffering local professional actors and theatre techies to a new stature as sustainer and developer of actors by virtue of his establishment of The Fortieth Anniversary English Theatre Acting Company, members of which performed the current production. The company’s first venture, a presentation of Dickens’ own script for A Christmas Carol, I saw last evening in a full house that gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Hinton took the unusual step of introducing the presentation casually, from the stage, coffee in hand, making the point that the new Company is a reincarnation of the original company, which ceased operation at the NAC twenty-five years ago. I must congratulate Artistic Director Peter Hinton and the NAC English Theatre and NAC Management for taking this brave and positive step towards developing a more fully expressed creative impulse for English Theatre at the NAC.
Now, the production itself:
When it comes to A Christmas Carol, adults consciously enter the realm of children, who love to be read to, especially so that they can hear familiar stories retold over and over. Dickens’ tale of recalcitrant selfishness and redemption is a melodrama in the best sense: the action is serious, emotional, and depicted directly, in the most obvious terms. Dickens was very connected to the plight of the poor in his London, and presented his case so vividly that the city Council, reacting to Oliver Twist, passed a resolution aimed at assisting the poor in one of his fictitious locations. While the modern audience is perhaps less to be fooled by Dickens’ inventions, it is just as taken in emotionally by the verisimilitude of his presentation of joy, sorrow, need, cruelty and virtue.
While this production used Dickens’ script, slightly amended, it certainly did not use Victorian techniques of theatre; rather, it effectively used expressive ensemble movement, vibrant choral singing, story theatre, surrealistic lighting, character driven scene changes, and some technically marvelous fog, as well as a rather unique use of costume to great comic effect in one of Scrooge’s latter scenes.
Eo Sharp’s costumes, although perhaps not as dirty as one would expect of Victorian wear, especially that worn by the particularly poor, still was very evocative of the period. I was particularly impressed by her costume for the very tall and slender Alex McCooeye: in many instances the tableau or scene in which Mr. McCooeye appeared was all the more striking because of his appearance, particularly the long black ribbon tied about and dangling from his hat. In many cases, costume was the main realistic device for establishing the setting and the period, and even the atmosphere.
Many elements of the setting had ritualistic qualities for example the horizontal door which was pivotted variously and with great solemnity and effect. The highly reflective section of floor signaled the surrealism of many of the elements that occurred upon or near it. The huge window, at the back stage centre, was used to surreal effect particularly when dramatically lit.
The cast of twenty-one, led by Stephen Ouimette as Ebenezer Scrooge, is as versatile and remarkable a group as Director Hinton could wish for. If there is an adjustment that an audience watching this production must make, it is that we are used to seeing these characters close up on the screen; it took me a while to adjust to the fact that Scrooge was so tiny, and Tiny Tim even tinier. Once I made that adjustment, I found myself being quite drawn in by the whole thing. This is an ensemble that knows how to create positional emphasis, how to vary the pitch of a scene, and how to look natural while doing it. There were delightful and impressive characters, really satisfying depictions of familiar scenes in which not a note rang false. That is not easy to do, as we all have our expectations of scenes we have pictured in our minds as we have read the story, scenes we have watched unfold on the screen; the other side of this is that while remaining true to our expectations, the performance must still fresh, even unexpected. This production was certainly satisfying in that regard. I might cite Scrooge’s extended dressing scene on Christmas morning, as I’m sure most audience members remember that scene quite vividly; however I am thinking of the ghost of Jacob Marley, all in white, dragging white chains and white boxes and ledgers, with that marvelous crepe concoction binding his jaw to his head. I’m thinking of the group divvying up Scrooge’s goods. I am thinking of the game of Blind Man’s Bluff. Mr. Fezziwig’s party. The list could go on.
This production is an excellent beginning for the National English Theatre Acting Company. I am looking forward to the production of Mother Courage and Her Children, by the Company. I wonder if Nicholas Nickleby is a possibility in the future. They certainly seem capable of it.
Performance viewed: December 19, 2009 7:30 pm running time: 1 hour 50 minutes no intermission
The National Arts Center English Theatre Company presents
A Christmas Carol
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Stephen Ouimette: Scrooge
nisha ahuja: Belle/Maid
Joshua Bajpai: Tiny Tim/Scrooge as Small Boy/IGNORANCE
Michael Blake: Baker/Topper/Poulterer/Fan’s Husband/The Snuff Man
Richard Donat: Mr. Fezziwig/Old Joe/2nd Gentleman
Randi Helmers: Spirit of Christmas Past/Scrooge’s Mother/Laundress
Tanja Jacobs: The Charwoman/Mrs. Fezziwig/Older Belle
Geordie Johnson: Jacob Marley/Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come
Kris Joseph: Nephew Fred
Ron Kennell: Bob Cratchit
John Koensgen: The Clergyman/Headmaster/Doctor
Jani Lauzon: Caroline Wilkins
Julie Tamiko Manning: Mrs. Cratchit/Sister
Alex McCooeye: The Undertaker
Niall Patrick McNeil: The Beggar/Dick Weller
Matt Miwa: Young Ebenezer at School/Peter Cratchit
Ananya Rajkumar: Tiny Tim/ Scrooge as Small Boy/IGNORANCE
Jeremiah Sparks: The Gentleman of Charity/Spirit of Christmas Present
Waneta Storms: The Niece/Fan/Martha
Matthew Tapscott: Samuel Wilkens/Young Ebenezer
Nina Rose Taylor: Belinda Cratchit/WANT
Peter Hinton: Director
Allen Cole: Music Director and Arranger
Paula Danckert: Dramaturgy
Eo Sharp: Set and Costume Design
Jock Munro: Lighting Design
Troy Slocum: Sound Design
Dayna Tekatch: Choreographer
Katherine Whithead: Design Assistant
Bronwyn Steinberg: Directing Intern
David Dean: Company Historian
David Petersen: Assistant to Mr. McNeil
Jane Vanstone Osborn: Stage Manager
Stéfanie Séguin: Assistant Stage Manager