A Christmas Carol

 

Birmingham Rep, Tuesday 15 December 2009

 

Review by Emma Shane

©January 2010

 

Having very much enjoyed this musical by Jason Carr and Bryony Lavery at The Chichester Festival Theatre last year, I was very keen to see Birmingham Repís professional revival of it. After all it is the first time a Jason Carr musical has actually been revived. So that makes it something special.

It is only the fourth time Iíve ever visited Birmingham (and the third doesnít really count as it was on the way back from somewhere else). I did not know before how dry the city is, with the Rep theatre being, as far as I can gather, in one of the dry parts of the city. Fortunately Jason Carrís songs are so thoroughly brilliant, one does not necessarily need any distilled waters to enjoy a performance of them.

 

This time, there are fewer ghosts, but of the few there are, they are all rather more fully attired, their costumes looking more like outer garments than undergarments. This is considerably less distracting as the simple costumes do not draw so much attention to themselves, and therefore our attention is more fully focused on the performances and the piece as a whole. The result is that the opening number A Ghost Story comes across rather better, though that could also be in part due to my having got more used to it, having seen the show last year at Chichester. I also noticed, one line of dialog which I do not recall being in the show before. Last year I thought the piece opened with one of the ghosts saying ďLet all the doors be lockedĒ. However, this year, there is definitely a line before that one, when one of the ghosts asks ďHow shall it be done?Ē Was this an addition for the revival, I wonder? Carl Au, as one might expect from an Arts Ed trained performer quickly established himself as Nephew Fred, though I was disappointed that Fred did not wear a red scarf, it had been a rather neat touch at Chichester that Fred and Fan had the same red scarf. Hadley Fraser also comes across reasonably well as Bob Crachit.

While in some ways it is good to see Scrooge played by an actor who is actually the right age for the part, with I Wish To Be Alone, it soon becomes apparent that Peter Polycarpou isnít as good a singer as the guys (Alfie Jones or the wonderful Edward Eustace) who had alternated in the role at Chichester last year (I donít know which of those two I actually saw). Interestingly, however, I noticed that Peter Polycarpou uses an interesting voice for the character, one which sounds vaguely familiar. In fact itís somewhat similar to the voice Mak Wilson used for Farkas Faffner in The Ghost Of Faffner Hall. I also couldnít help noticing that the caroller, played by Colin Ryan was here dressed as a choir boy, I felt this to be an unnecessary distraction, though it was the only piece of poor costuming in the entire show..There seems to be a bit of a trend in musicals at the moment, for getting actors who can more or less sing but are not primarily known for singing playing major roles. On film weíve had Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, while on the London stage in the past year weíve had Rowan Atkinson in Oliver!, Peter Davison in Legally Blond The Musical, and not forgetting Max Gold in Johnny Johnson. Of course there are some advantages to using actors who can sing a bit. In that because their singing ability is somewhat limited, they actually focus and concentrate more on putting the song across with simplicity and sincerity, rather than trying to do any amazing vocal acrobatics that a more accomplished singer would be tempted to do. In this particular instance, although Carrís music seems a little complex for Polycarpouís vocal abilities, the positive side is that Polycarpou does sing the lyrics very clearly, where as some of the more musically accomplished performers in this production do not.

The medley of Christmas carols which follows is not credited in the programme this time, I felt that a shame, since it brings out Jason Carrís fabled ability as an arranger so well.

The contrast between actors who can sing a bit doing their best and singer-actors doing it is made very clear in Here In Life, sung by Russell Dixon, as Marley. Now Russell Dixon is fairly well known for doing musicals, and one could tell that musically is voice is much more accomplished, and yet he didnít sing the brilliant lyrics so clearly.

On to meeting The Ghost Of Christmas Past, Colin Ryan does a perfectly satisfactory job, though not as ethereal as when Ben Geering did it at Chichester. In the schoolhouse we have the first real surprise of the evening. the Boy Scrooge is portrayed by means of rod puppet, performed by Paul-Ryan Carberry. He does a reasonably satisfactory job, but is clearly inexperienced. However, for the purposes of this production that doesnít matter too much. There enters another puppet, Fan, performer by Vicki Lee Taylor. I was wondering how this production could possibly match Freya Hollandís wonderful performance last year. Yet Vicki Lee Taylor does a surprisingly good job. The fact that she seems one of the few performers in the cast to have had some contact with puppetry before, her television credits do include The Sooty Show (although itís not clear whether sheís ever helped out with the puppeteering, but whatever her involvement with a television show like that, it probably helped in some way. It also helps that she does a good Ďcuteí voice, the sort that is very necessary to this character. (Itís a bit like an English version of the sort of voice Julie Atherton did for Kate Monster in Avenue Q, which is itself clearly a good imitation of the kind of voice used by several Sesame Street puppeteers). At Chichester Fan and Boy Scrooge had simply sat on a box, pretending it was a carriage. But now the two puppets are placed in a cart (with their puppeteers walking behind it). The carriage even has a horse, only instead of the pantomime stereotype of two stupid actors dressed up as a horse, here we only had one actor dressed up as a horse, he actually did have a large horses head mask over his own head. Anyway, Home For Good is a jolly romp of a song, which Vicki does justice to (just as Freya did at Chichester).

On to my favourite song in the piece, The Grand Fezziwig Annual Company Christmas Ball. This song has a beautiful tune, and absolutely splendid lyrics, so it was a shame that Sevan Stephan and Melanie La Barrie rather mangled the gorgeous lyrics by failing to sing with any clarity. But itíd still a great tune, very nicely played by the orchestra. By now Paul-Ryan Carberry is acting the part of Scrooge as a young man, with Sophie Bould as Belle.

This time The Ghost Of Christmas Present is played by a man, Dale Meeks, and his costume is well perhaps the one we might traditionally expect for this ghost, bearing a slight similarity to the puppet version performed by Jerry Nelson in one notable film, and above all of course very much a Father Christmas/SantaClaus character. Interesting though Emily Dybleís portrayal had been , I think in a way perhaps sticking with tradition at this point is probably the best thing to do (where practical). Sometimes itís good to give an audience what it expects. I was pleasantly surprised by Rosalie Craigís excellent portrayal of Mrs Cratchit. Itís a difficult part for any actress to make her own, especially if one has seen it played on film and television by such characters as Miss Piggy, or Roland Ratís Mother Iris. Yet, whatever versions of this character one has seen before, and however much presence theyíve got, this afternoon, at least for the duration of the performance, Rosalie Craig succeeded in making the character very much her own. Right away in Scene 11 Chez The Cratchits she took clear charge of the scene. And sang very well on The Christmas Goose. In fact this number, brilliantly led by Hadley Fraser as Bob Crachit was one of the best performed numbers in the entire show. Hadley and Rosalie led the way, proving themselves to be really fine singers, so well suited to the complexities of Carrís music, and yet also brilliant actors, capable of making their important roles very much their own. They also sing the complex, brilliant lyrics with a little more clarity than the Chichester performers did, though the latter did put a great deal of effort into it. The children playing many of the younger Crachits also did well. While Tiny Tim was another rod puppet, this time puppeteered by Colin Ryan, although I felt his puppetry lacked a certain amount of experience. I did notice that he seemed to connect with the puppet, acting as though he had some affection for it, I wonder if heís had an experience of puppets before? Possibly his work on Hounded may have helped. Itís notable he was also trained at Arts Educational.

Onto Scene 12, at Nephew Fredís we also got two more splendid performances, from Carl Au as Fred, and Paul-Ryan Carberry doing his best work as Topper. Between them they put Yes And No across very well indeed. Carl in particular is an excellent singer, as one might expect from the winner of the very first Stephen Sondheim Student Performer Of The Year Award. I was less sure about the performances of some of the other members of Fredís family, with particular doubts as to whether Russell Dixonís performance, in drag, of Great Aunt Emmeline really did much for the show. However this is a small company, and we have to make do with the actors we have.

With The Toast we also have a lot of excellent performances, from Carl, Hadley and Rosalie, which made this song come across rather better than at Chichester, though it does also have a beautiful melody, with clever lyrics that fit it perfectly.

Finally The Ghost Of Christmas Past presents Scrooge with the two children Want and Ignorance, these were two more rod puppets, this time performed by Melanie La Barrie and Vlach Ashton. Somehow I didnít find them particularly convincing puppeteers., however that could have been as much to do with the characters. There isnít much they could do in terms of characterisation. The act ends with smoke, and a scared Scrooge, and there is still one more ghost yet to come.

 

Act 2 opens once again with the Grey Ghost, and then we meet the final ghost Christmas Yet To Come. This is portrayed by a large puppet, high up towards the back of the stage, and is performed rather well by Vlach Ashton, his best performance in the show.

In The City various characters, named after monetary terms discuss someoneís death. Most of these characters are male, and it was interesting to note that several notable male members of the company fitted well into a strong ensemble (Hadley Fraser and Carl Au among them). However, I did notice that the lone female, Sophie Bould stood out for doing a particularly good job in her little part.

At Old Joeís Make Hay (ĎCause Tonight You Die!) came across even more brilliantly than it did at Chichester. Good though The Chichester Youth Theatre are, it benefits a lot from being performed by experienced professional grown up actors. Rosalie Craig does a particularly good job as Mrs Dabchick. Vicki Lee Taylor is more or less satisfactory as Mrs Dilber, certainly an improvement on the performance at Chichester, although the character still isnít coming across quite as well as perhaps it could. However I think perhaps it would take a comedy singer-actress of rare ability to bring the most out of this character. Paul-Ryan Carberry is entirely satisfactory although the least noticeable of the three as Dobber the undertakerís man. Mr and Mrs Old Joe are played by Russell Dixon and Melanie La Barrie, and here we find a big improvement. The performers at Chichester did their best, but they were young and inexperienced and it showed. Russell Dixon demonstrates a fair understanding of comedy acting. While Melanie La Barrie turns out the best performance she has given all afternoon. Yes I think overall this scene and number could work even better, with better actors. However, this afternoonís cast did improve the scene from the Chichester production (and that one had been quite fun).

Who Cares, sung by Sevan Stephan in the mortuary is the least memorable song in the entire score. It could be due as much to the fact that all the other songs in the score are so brilliant (and memorable). There is nothing inherently wrong with it. And indeed Carrís lyrics are pretty much up to his usual standards. The music is entirely pleasant, satisfactory. But somehow not very memorable, maybe the tune sounds almost more like a piece of underscoring music, than a song. There is nothing wrong in this, if that is what was intended. Maybe itís meant to be forgettable, as if to illustrate the point, who cares about Scrooge, who would remember a person like that, who can tell.

Paul-Ryan Carberry and Vicki Lee Taylor actually succeed in making the two debtors into noticeable characters, though their roles are small.

At the Crachits all the children, including the boys are busy sewing, in this production rather than clothing they seem to be working on some kind of embroidery drape. Iím not quite sure what this is supposed to represent. However, I did notice one young male actor looked like he was getting very into whatever he was sewing. That is good to see.

The Graveyard finds one of the actors, I think it might have been Paul-Ryan Carberry, unless it was Vlach Ashton, being a statue on top of Scroogeís tomb, until with a bound he jumped down and ran off. Impressive. It also reminded me a little of the dancing statues in Mary Poppins.

Until now Peter Polycarpou had shown himself to be a pretty decent actor, however in this scene I felt he went too far, playing for laughs with a lack of seriousness. He had Scrooge apparently laughing on finding he was still alive and had not missed Christmas Day, the spirits did it all in one night. Of course some people do laugh when they are nervous (or upset or frightened), so itís possible he was trying to convey that. However, even if that was his intention, it could also be interpreted as hamming up the performance, and I think it would have been better to play safe and not have been putting laughter in there. There are occasions when I think skilled performers may getaway with doing something a little differently to the expected way of doing something, and it can make a refreshing change, but attempts at being different do have to be done with care, because there is always a danger that the audience wonít ďget itĒ. I felt he went too far. However he sang that marvellous song Merry Christmas Everybody perfectly satisfactorily, well itís brilliant song. When it comes to the reprise the entire company put over with the verve and enthusiasm it deserves. The scene also included one lovely surprise, the boy whom Scrooge sends to the poulters, enters from the back of the auditorium, coming right down an aisle, itís soon apparent he isnít just any boy, but a chimney sweep, carrying his brush over his shoulder. For those of us whoíve seen it, it was such a striking reminder of another great Jason Carr musical (which this score is on a par with), and strangely another adaptation of a Victorian novel, The Waterbabies. Initially I thought this ďboyĒ mustíve been played by one of the children in the company, but a close inspection of the programme suggests it was played by Colin Ryan.

Meanwhile Carl Au acting with convincing surprise as Fred, on finding his Uncle come to join him for dinner. I also noticed a few lines had been switched around, with Russell Dixonís Great Aunt Emmeline asking for a kitten, rather than young Frederika, I preferred Chichesterís take on that. Finally Peter Polycarpou and Hadley Fraser mange a convincing job of the final moments of the scene between Scrooge and Bob Crachit, and then the entire company takes their bows and sings a rousing finale of Merry Christmas Everybody, and possibly a bit of The Christmas Goose. Somewhere in the show, I think it was the finale there was fair amount of dancing, by that very able choreographer Nick Winston and two men in particular stand out as performing brilliantly, Iím fairly sure they were Carl Au and Colin Ryan (which is to be expected given where those two trained).Finally the orchestra plays us out with my favourite song of all The Grand Fezziwig Annual Company Christmas Ball. I think itís a shame that song didnít get a proper reprise.

 

It was great to hear Jason Carrís score so wonderfully well played by the band (Curtis Stansfield, Chris Burn, Lewis Rowlands, Sarah James, Mark Taylor andMusical Director Tom Deering. The designs by Colin Richmond were, I felt an improvement on Chichester. The use of puppets was an interesting idea, and quite a challenge for the actors, bearing in mind that judging by their resumes they generally seem to have very little, if any, experience of puppeteering prior to this show (of course puppeteers who are also actors are sometimes known to hide their puppeteering credits). Therefore the five performers taking up puppets, mustíve had to rely a good deal on effective coaching from Rachael Canning. Vicki Lee Taylor seemed to take the best to working the rod puppets on this show. Though Paul-Ryan Carberry and Colin Ryan did reasonably well. One might note that Colin trained at the same institution that some thirty five years earlier trained a certain notable puppeteer (though not in puppetry). Vlach Ashton seemed to work better using larger puppets, that relied more on the way he moved his whole body, than the smaller ones dependent on channelling a performance into the hands. It is the first time I have ever seen puppets used in a Jason Carr musical. Though I have read that two shows at Chichester did include notable puppeteers among their casts. For example Born Againís Rhino Movement Coach was William Todd Jones (who was also in the ensemble), and probably relied to some extent on his puppetry skills for being a rhino in that show. While Jason Carrís numerous credits as a pianist accompanist, do happen to include playing the piano ďThe English MuppetĒ, a fact strangely absent from Jasonís resume. Anyway, these days when what with The Lion King, Avenue Q, and War Horse around, there does seem to be a bit of a fashion for incorporating puppets into musicals. Certainly I can see the value of using puppets for ghosts. Iím just not altogether sure about using them instead of children. That said Fan and Boy Scrooge were very sweetly performed, especially Fan.

One of the difficulties with Jason Carrís music, is that ideally you need the sort of performers are accomplished at singing quite complex music theatre, very similar to the sort of skills needed to performer Berstein or Sondheim. Musically this cast was a bit of a mixture. Their acting abilities were also somewhat mixed. Dale Meeksís most noticeable part is The Ghost Of Christmas Present. The rest of the time he is a useful member of the ensemble, but rarely noticeable. Vlach Ashton is pretty much never really noticed for singing, or much for acting. He is however noticeable for his movement abilities. I think he was the ghost who was forever crawling around here and there, including perched on Scroogeís bed. Sophie Bould was the least noticeable of the women. However, she did play Scroogeís sweetheart Belle, and interestingly managed to make Penney into a noticeable bit character. Her Marilyn was less noticeable. Another actor who did a lot of minor parts, and yet by contrast to the others made a lot of them was Colin Ryan. All the more surprising given that he is making his professional stage debut, but then he was trained at Arts Ed, and seem to have a habit of turning out performers with a lot of presence. He certainly seems very Ďat homeí in this musical in Birmingham. Most of his parts emphasise his youthful qualities. Itís noticeable that many of the best performances come from the younger actors in the company, perhaps partly because so many of them are talented performers starting out who havenít yet made their names that much. Of course older actors can bring experience to their parts, but some of this material would be quite challenging for musical theatre actors in Londonís West End, let alone a regional rep such as this. Certainly in his resume Sevan Stephen actually states that his most challenging role to date is playing Mr Fezziwig in this production, and I could see from his performance that it clearly is a challenge for him, trying to sing and dance this. His diction on the singing was particularly poor as was Melaine La Barrieís, which was a shame, as this somewhat spoilt one of the best songs in the show, The Grand Fezziwig Annual Company Christmas Ball. Mind you even first West End performers do not always have brilliant diction. Melaine La Barrie gave her best performance as Mrs Old Joe, since she actually managed to act this character fairly well, giving us a sense of the comedy in the script.Likewise Russell Dixon played Mr Old Joe pretty well. His big part however was Marley where given that he clearly can sing, I felt he didnít quite do the song justice. He was satisfactory as Great Aunt Emmeline, although I didnít really like the character being played by a man. Probably the biggest named actor in the cast is Leading Man Peter Polycarpou. Obviously a show like this needs to have a reasonably big named actor in the title role. He is one of those actors who can sing, but seems to be not primarily a singer. Fortunately he managed to handle his songs sensible. Generally he commanded the stage pretty well as an actor. Although I felt he overdid it somewhat on the opening of the final scene. Overall I felt that while it was good to see the part played by an actor of the right age bracket, the young men at Chichester actually played the character better. However, letís hope this show continues to be revived, then maybe we could have an even better actor for this key role. Still for a production in a small rep theatre, this was a generally good leading performance. Perhaps the best known of the younger performers is Vicki Lee Taylor. She is a very engaging actress, with a fair amount of stage presence and charisma, plus she already has considerable and varied experience. She shone the most performing Fan. however her acting roles included Ash, a quite noticeable and engaging ghost. She also played Mrs Dilber fairly well, better than it was played at Chichester, though I still think there is room for improvement if possible, and then a debtorís wife. Of the less known actors, Paul-Ryan Carberry proves to be quite a find. He his good stage presence, can act, and he can sing decently. Basically most of the skills that are really needed in a musical like this. He was at his best as Silver, who seemed to be a leader among the ghosts. Topper brought his singing talents to the fore with Yes And No (though he had a hard job keeping up with Carl Au), whole his other bit parts Dobber and the Debter were both played satisfactorily, as was Scrooge as a young man. Playing Nephew Fred, Carl Au is the latest in a long line of accomplished singer-actors a Stephen Sondheimís work, to have turned their brilliant talents to singing Jason Carrís brilliant work, some of the others include: Michael Ball, William Dazley, Anna Francolini, Teddy Kempner, Beverley Klein, Anna Lowe, Brendan OíHea, Mandy Patinkin, Liza Pulman, Philip Quast, and not forgetting Arts Ed trained Louise Gold and Maria Friedman. Now Carl Au upholds this tradition, and performs Jasonís songs every bit as well as one might expect from a performer of his clearly high calibre. Another extremely musically adept singer, whose performance really stood out, is that of Hadley Fraser as Bob Crachit. Hadley in fact trained at The Royal College Of Music, though he seems quite at home performing in the university city of Birmingham. Singing may be what he does best, but he also acted the part jolly well too. He was quite a trove for this production. One more amazing performance was Rosalie Craig as Lydia Bobís wife, she had a lot of stage presence; sang and acted brilliantly, and made the role of Mrs Crachit something, and also Mrs Dabchick as only a good comedy actress could do it.

However, above all, the real joy of this production is simply the fact that this show, originally commissioned by The Chichester Youth Theatre, has now been given a professional revival, at Birmingham Rep. This revival proves just how durable the piece is. One that does just as well, if not better, performed by a different cast to that for which it was written. The script by Bryony Lavery is good, and the songs by Jason Carr are just fantastic, real quality. Itís a shame, being a Londoner, I have to travel to places like Birmingham to see and hear musical theatre of this quality. Travelling during the Christmas period, when so many people are travelling means very crowded trains, and a lot of waiting around to catch them. I found myself wandering rounda shopping mall or two,while waiting for trains, this entailed hearing a lot of mediocre Christmas music, which sounded even worse, after having had such an enjoyable time in the theatre listening to the super high quality of Jason Carrís glorious songs. Anyway itís just terrific to see a piece like this given a revival. Letís hope it paves the way for further revivals, bringing Jason Carrís wonderful musicals to come to the wider audience they so richly deserve.

 

 

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Off Site Links:

Birmingham Repís Official Website: http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/

 

Composer Jason Carrís Official Website: http://www.jasoncarr.org.uk/

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