A Christmas Carol
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, Friday 3 December 2010
Review by Emma Shane
© December 2010
It is something very special to have a Jason Carr musical performed in Leeds of all places for the first time. In a way the show, which originated in Chichester, and then was given its professional premier in Birmingham finds its natural home at The West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The set is largely the same as that used at Birmingham Rep last year, with perhaps a few additions. The costumes are mostly the same or similar; There do however, seem to be a few different ones, plus a few additional props. A number of the cast appeared in the show last year in Birmingham, but there have also been quite a few cast changes.
Bryony Laveryís opening lines seem to have been added to yet again. At Chichester it started with ďLet all the doors be lockedĒ, in Birmingham it was ďHow is it to be done?Ē and then ďLet all the doors be lockedĒ, and now in Leeds we start with ďAbout the matter of Ebenezer Scrooge, how is it to be done? Let all the doors be locked....Ē These extra words in the prologue mean it takes a little longer to actually get to any music. However the music is of course well worth waiting for. As the orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Williams strikes up A Ghost Story, one of Jason Carrís lovely haunting melodies.
The grey ghosts are more numerous than last year, and include among their number several children. Most of the Grey Ghosts are dressed in Victorian or Edwardian clothing, however this time a few appear in more distinctly late twentieth century garments, which to my mind seem rather out of place for a musical based upon a Charles Dickens novel. The three most notable Grey Ghosts are the same as last year: Vlach Ashton, Paul-Ryan Carberry, and Vicki Lee Taylor, though I got the distinct impression that several other members of the cast also filled out the ensemble as Grey Ghosts. Of the trio, one particularly noticed Vicki Lee Taylor in her grey nurses uniform, very much the same as last year. I was not sure whether the other two wore the same costumes or different ones. Certainly the choreography has been altered, since Vlach spends most of the time standing up, rather than crawling around on the floor as he did last year.
The Counting House set, along with Bob Crachitís desk slightly separate, looks as though it is the same as that used last year. However with the entrance of Philip Whitchurch as Scrooge, straight away we know this is a distinct improvement upon last year. Philip Whitchurch may not be as big a name as Peter Polycarpou, but he is a much more appropriate performer for the role, as he quickly proves with his skilful rendering of I Wish To Be Alone, ablely backed up by Dale Meeks and Seven Stephen as the two charity collectors. Robert Finlayson is entirely satisfactory as Bob Crachit here, though he does not have the presence of Hadley Fraser; and Stuart Neal is also satisfactory, though without quite Carl Auís presence. Once again I felt it a shame that he didnít have a red scarf (In the Chichester production Fred and Fan had what appeared to be the same distinctive scarf). Meanwhile the Caroller is uncredited in the programme, although it seems likely to be Rob Compton, given that he seems to be playing the rest of the roles that Colin Ryan played last year. Once again I thought the overgrown choir-boy an unnecessary embellishment for the caroller.
There follows the Carol Sequence, which this time is credited in the programme. This medley brings out Yorkshire composer Jason Carrís superb skills as an arranger, skills no doubt honed by his numerous arrangements for revues (particularly those involving David Kernan). Most of the company get some opportunities in among the ensemble during this jolly sequence.
There is more ensemble work once Scrooge gets into his bed, as an ensemble of Grey Ghosts dance around with chains during the emergence of Marleyís ghost, and his song Here In Life. Once again itís easy to recognise the three main Grey Ghosts: Vlasch Ashton, Paul-Ryan Carberry, and Vicki Lee Taylor. However, various other notable players (such as: Beverley Klein and Sarah Moyle) are pretty much unrecognisable, and one only realises they are Grey Ghosts too in this scene because of their appearance in a rehearsal photograph in the programme. As Marleyís Ghost Paul Leonard soon proves to produce a superior performance to that of Russell Dixon last year. Russell was good, but did not always sing the lyrics too clearly. Paul acts better, sings with greater clarity, and generally brings to this part a good deal of stage presence, and perhaps just a touch of the capitalist lobster from The Waterbabies. There is a kind of similarity between the characters of that lobster and Jacob Marley isnít there? He also brings an almost Shakespearian quality to this ghost, I donít know why but for a moment or two I was reminded of Patrick Stewartís ghost performance in a certain David Tennant film.
There is something very convincing about the acting by Paul Leonard and Philip Whitchurch, of Bryony Laveryís script, one can see that although Scrooge is as yet unreformed the seeds of reforming him are being sewn by Marleyís visit. One even feels sympathy for Scrooge when on being told of the visitations over three nights he asks ďCanít I have them all in one and get it over with?Ē, Iíd not really noticed that line so much before.
On to meeting The Ghost of Christmas Past. He is played by Rob Compton, like Colin Ryan last year he is entirely satisfactory. Not perhaps as genderless as Ben Geering, though tending a little towards it. In a strange way he kind of reminds me of Julian Bleachís Arial!
At the school-house we have the schoolboy Scrooge represented by the puppet, performed, as last year by Paul-Ryan Carberry. Later joined by sister Fan, also represented by a puppet, performed, as last year, by Vicki Lee Taylor. Their song Home For Christmas is a beautiful joyful little piece, yet somehow it seems a trifle swallowed by the size of the theatre, or possibly the poor sound balance., such that it doesnít come across anything like as well as it originally did in Chichester, nor, despite having the same performers as well as this gleeful song did last year at Birmingham. This definitely suggests the sound engineers seem to be at fault. Nevertheless it is by no means bad, and itís still a great fun song. †This year although the two puppets seemed a little more fluid, for their performers have become more accustomed to working them, they do not appear quite as noticeable as last year. Although one canít help noticing the way Vicki carefully lays her puppet down in her own arms to carry it off stage, representing Fanís death. As with last year, rather than the pantomime tradition of ďtwo stupid actors dressed up as a horseĒ, the carriage is pulled by actor wearing a horses head, while the two puppeteers walk behind the carriage. See the horse and carriage is like seeing an old familiar friend, though we still donít know who is performing the role of the horse.
Continuing with Scroogeís past, we have what is perhaps my favourite song in the show The Grand Fezziwig Annual Christmas Ball. This year Beverley Klein and Sevan Stephen are leading the company. The latter performed it last year, and somewhat mangled it. But this year heís much improved. Perhaps having the excellent Beverley Klein as his partner in the duet helped. He just has to rise to the high standard she sets. I couldnít help noticing that Beverly was wearing a rather striking titan wig, which reminded me very slightly of a certain redheaded puppeteer whose cabaret act our composer has been an accompanist to. Anyway, tonight it is great to have Beverley Klein to sing The Grand Fezziwig Annual Christmas Ball, because although Iím not too sure if this role is necessarily one of her best, sheís such a good steady performer, the sort one can always trust not murder any role or song. She may not always be the perfect choice for a role, but she will always be a reasonably good choice. I particularly liked the gleeful way she almost yelled the line ď...The EngineerĒ in the song. Is the any other song in musical theatre that has mentioned Brunel The Engineer? Itís pure joy to have this brilliant song done full justice to, A huge improvement on last yearís production. The song is so brilliant a showstopper one almost forgets what happens next.
Time to meet The Ghost Of Christmas Present. This is played by Dale Meeks, same as last year, and once again wearing a costume which reminds one very much of the puppet version of the same character that the great Jerry Nelson performed in one film version. And then we get a surprise, a song I certainly donít remember from previous productions, Christmas Time, sung very nicely by Dale Meeks. By now the orchestra is beginning to get into its stride, and the jolly upbeat tune seems very vaguely reminiscent of King Of The Woods And Tundra (last yearís excellent Chichester production of The Snow Queen). †Although this increases the length of the first act, itís great that this show has a new song for its Leeds outing.
At The Crachits we now meet the rest of the Crachit family. As with last year, Tiny Tim is a puppet, the programme does not credit his performer, though one would presume it might be Rob Compton. Ones attention focuses rather on the various Crachit children, played here by members of the Community Chorus, they really make the most of this, switching places and trying to hide from their father. The performance of The Crachitís rousing number The Christmas Goose seems rather more energetic than last year, with a great deal more choreography, which involves both Mr and Mrs Crachit dancing all over the place, including standing on their chairs, and possibly even on the table. Although Robert Finlayson and Sarah Moyle do not quite have the presence and winning personalities of Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig, they nevertheless manage, mainly as a result of their dancing skills, to make almost more of this major number than those two did, and they were seriously good!
At Scroogeís nephew Fredís, we find Fred (played by Stuart Neal) introducing his friend Topper (played by Paul-Ryan Carberry, same as last year) to his family. Here their have been a few changes. As with last year, they have included Fredís wifeís deaf Aunt Emmeline, once again played by a man in drag, however this is another of those occasions where Paul Leonard is a big improvement on Russell Dixon. Although I still donít think having a man play this role does a great deal for the show, at least Paul Leonard is rather more plausible an actor than Russell Dixon was last year. This year we have the addition of another elderly lady, another Aunt of Fredís wifeís, this time the nearly blind Aunt Porceline, played expertly by Beverley Klein, who happens to be rather expert at playing peculiar character roles. Remember the time she played The Old Women With One Buttock in Candide? This time Marilyn played by Rachel Lynes (a part played by Sophie Bould last year) has only one sister, Valerine, this time given as being a younger sister (in previous productions Valerine was Marilynís elder sister, and they had a younger sister named Carolyn). Whereas last year Vicki Lee-Taylor had played Valerine, this time she is played by one of the children in the company, and she looks so completely unlike the rest of her family, that the only plausible explanation is that she must be an ďadopted sisterĒ (similar to the relationship between the actress Hazel Bainbridge and the author Elinor Brent-Dyer, not to mention the latterís fictional creation in The Chalet School series of Robin Humphries and Joey Bettany). However, this is a very minor detail. On to the song Yes And No. One of the few songs in the score which although very clever can have an ever so slight tendency to become tedious. Tonight it is taken I think at a slightly faster tempo then previously, which actually helps to keep the song fresh. Therefore Jonathan Williamís musical direction has actually improved this inventive song.
With both dining tables on stage, we get The Christmas Toast. Although the company perform this song perfectly well. I felt that the lead in to it did not come across quite as notably as last year. But then last we did have Carl Au as Fred, Hadley Fraser as Bob Crachit and the wonderful Rosalie Craig as Mrs Crachit. Though the current inhabitants of those roles do a good steady job. Mrs Crachit is a particularly difficult role for any performer to make her own (well trying to follow on from such film and television takes as Miss Piggy, and Roland Ratís Mother Iris is pretty tough), and somehow although Sarah Moyle does well, she doesnít quite succeed in the way that Rosalie Craig did. After this merriment, The Ghost of Christmas Present, then presents Scrooge with the two children Ignorance and Want, these like last year are puppets. This year their puppeteers are not credited in the programme. One presumes that Vlach Ashton probably puppeteered Ignorance, since he did it last year, but it is not clear who is doing Want. However, the two puppets do not make as much of an impact as they did last year. Scrooge still has to meet the scariest of them all The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, we see the light, and dark shapes, but just then it is time for the interval.
Act 2 opens with the Grey Ghosts singing a reprise of the opening number A Ghost Story, and then carrying on pretty much where Act 1 left off, only now the tables have been cleared away. As with last year Vlach Ashton plays the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, and it is once again one of his best moments in the show, though this year his overall performance seems to have improved anyway. Here too we have a few changes. Instead of the body covered in a sheet being on Scroogeís stripped four-poster, the body is wheeled on on some kind of hospital trolley. Next come the various City characters discussing the person who has just died. Last year that scene was very good indeed. This year, I feel it is taken too over the top, exaggerated into grotesque parody. This is probably not the fault of the actors (Rob Compton, Rachel Lynes, Dale Meeks, Stuart Neal, and, Sevan Stephen) two of whom did this last year, but the way Nicolai Foster has directed them this time, last year he was somewhat more restrained. We then get the various scavengers taking Scroogeís belongings to The Old Joes. When I was reviewing this last year, I said the scene would work even better with better actors as The Old Joes, and good though it was last year, this year it is even better as a result of having Paul Leonard as Old Joe and Beverley Klein as Mrs Old Joe, what a winning combination. Now at last we have a performance of those two character that could match Lionel Bartís famous Dickensian death number. As for the other three. Well Paul Ryan-Carberry reprises his role as Dobber perfectly well. Vicki-Lee Taylor reprises her role of Mrs Dilber, and somehow I donít think she did it quite as well as she did it last year, but maybe I just donít really remember what her performance was like last year. To be honest it would be very difficult for any actress to make this role their own, after the way that little role was performed so brilliantly in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Meanwhile Sarah Moyle comes into her own as Mrs Dabchick, maybe not quite as impressive as Rosalie Craig, but nevertheless pretty good, and enjoyable to watch. Overall Make Hay Cause Tonight You Die comes across on balance the best it ever has. This is largely thanks to the performances of Paul Leonard and Beverley Klein, who perform it just perfectly. Of course the fact that both of them are already experienced performers of Jason Carrís work may help here.
For once Sevan Steven managed to make Antimony moderately noticeable, or at least I remember thinking that the song Who Cares was rather more memorable at the time or the performance.
Next the scene with the debtors is updated from last year. The programme does not actually credit them. One would assume them to be Vicki Lee Taylor, and, Paul-Ryan Carberry, well those two did it last time. This year, the two debtors are in boxes either side of the stage, speaking to each other on what look like Victorian telephones. Itís not clear to me whether the dialogue had been changed, it might have done. The couple now seem to be involved with some kind of struggling business partnership, rather than a married couple about to loose their home (which was the impression of them last year). Although in many ways I felt that last yearís version was more in keeping with the Dickensian times, in a way this yearís version is very apt for the current times, and serves as a reminder that many things do not really change all that much through the ages.
Scroogeís request to see a death given more emotion, brings us to the Crachit family, preparing for Tiny Timís funeral. As with last year, the siblings, including the boys, are busy sewing, as is their mother, when their father enters. The scene is still a good one, and well acted by all, although not quite as impressively memorable as last year, since the performers do not have quite so much stage presence. Nevertheless it is still very satisfactory, and in a way because the performers arenít quite so overwhelming, we actually pay more attention to Bryony Laveryís script.
The Graveyard is much like last year, with someone, possibly Vlach Ashton leaping off the tombstone where he has been portraying a statue. At last a thoroughly scared Scrooge is escorted back to his own bed, by Vicki Lee Taylor, dressed as a nurse. There is something touching about her performance, as though she is taking care of him.
Presently daylight comes, Scrooge finds everything now back to normal, complete with his bed curtains. His relief at being alive is joyously convincing, as to is his delight at finding it is Christmas Day, he hasnít missed it, the spirits did do it all in one night. With that he launches into Merry Christmas Everybody. Philip Whitchurchís performance this year is a huge improvement on Peter Polycarpouís last year; because unlike his predecessor he does not ham it up. Philip Whitchurch delivers a very convincing performance, someone who is genuinely pleased to be alive, and to have got the whole experience over with, and has learned his lesson. But importantly, he does not go over the top about this. Yes Scrooge is a changed man, but he is not a different man; it is as though he has rediscovered a long forgotten part of himself. The song is a joyous one, with a memorable tune, but again it is not overdone. The comic highlight of the number, is when Rob Compton comes on with the prize goose from the poulterers. Whereas last year it was with a dressed goose, this one clearly has not yet been plucked. Then of course Scrooge goes off to his nephews, I canít remember who asked for a kitten this time, I think it might have been Frederika. The most notable change to this little scene, was an addition to Frederikaís name, as her father adds yet another middle name, Ebeneaza, after her great uncle. I felt this additional joke to be rather unnecessary. The scene ended with the two Aunts wandering about the stage, these were comical, but not over the top, one can trust Beverley Klein to do something like that well.
After the delights of Merry Christmas Everybody, time to come back down to earth the next day, as Bob Crachit arrives late for work. The last scene between Philip Whitchurch and Robert Finlayson is entirely convincing, with Philip Whitchurch playing Scrooge it canít help but be a convincing happy ending.
There only remains for all the cast to come on for the finale. Two glorious represses, one of Merry Christmas Everybody, and then The Christmas Goose, both sung by the entirely company. I only wish they might have included The Grand Annual Fezziwig Company Christmas Ball, but once again that was left as an instrumental play out, however I didnít mind so much this year, because at least the song had been performed very well in the first place.
Throughout the production the band of six under the direction of Jonathan Williams did Jason Carrís lovely score justice, just the justice it deserves to have in Leeds. And of course being a Jason Carr score we know that the orchestrations (although not credited) will be exactly what the composer has in mind. He is after all a twice Tony Award nominated orchestrator (once for Stephen Sondheimís Sunday In The Park With George and once Jerry Hermanís La Cage Aux Folles). The only really negative side to this production is Sebastian Frostís sound design. Or, since he did it last year (when it seemed ok) is it the way Martin Pickersgill and company have interpreted it. Whatever it is there is something not quite right about the sound balance, such that on several occasions the orchestra seem to be drowning the singers, such that we canít hear Jason Carrís wonderful lyrics clearly, which since they fit his music so perfectly is a great shame. Carr after all is a Compose-Lyricist (and one of contemporary musical theatreís best at that), so really a show of his should have a sound balance that does both his lyrics as well as his music justice a great shame especially when the show is in Leeds. The direction by Nikolai Foster with associate Robert Shaw Cameron and assistant Tom Mansfield †is clearly of a similar standard to last year, although they have made some alterations, some of which are for the better and others not. Meanwhile the choreography by the clever Nick Winston and associate choreographer Vicki Lee Taylor actually seems to be generally an improvement upon last year; particularly with regards to Mr and Mrs Crachitís amazing dancing around during The Christmas Goose, and also with regards to the Grey Ghosts.
As for The Company themselves, all perform well, some are better than their counterparts last year, while others not quite so good. Similarly some perform just as well as they themselves did last year, while others possibly note quite so well. Of those who played the same roles last year: Vicki Lee Taylor is mostly as good as she was before, although I thought her performance in Make Hey Cause Tonight You Die not quite up to her standard last year. Paul-Ryan Carberryís performance is absolutely on a par with his one last year. Meanwhile the other three from last year show a distinct improvement. Vlach Ashtonís performance seems to have benefited from the changes to the choreography. Dale Meeksís performance while more than satisfactory is enhanced this year be the addition of a lovely new song, which he gets to make his own. But the biggest surprise of last yearís performers is Sevan Stephen whose performance, particularly of Mr Fezziwig is a tremendous improvement upon last year. He is an example of an actor who truly seems to benefit from having to rise to the standard set by so excellent a partner as Beverley Klein. Of the newcomers to this yearís production, Rob Compton and Rachel Lynes seem to be of a similar standard to their last yearís counterparts Colin Ryan and Sophie Bould. Meanwhile Robert Finlayson and Sarah Moyle, as well as to some extent Stuart Neal, are not quite up to the very high standard set last year for their roles. However they are by no means bad, and given that last year those parts were played by such excellent performers as† Hadley Fraser, Rosalie Craig, and, Carl Au, the three playing the parts this year do jolly well, because last yearís performers were so perfect they are a very hard act to follow.† Meanwhile we also have three performers, Beverely Klein, Paul Leonard, and, Philip Whitchurch who are a huge improvement on their last yearís counterparts of Melaine LaBarrie, Russell Dixon, and, Peter Polycarpou. It is a great joy to see Beverely Klein and Paul Leonard once again performing in a Jason Carr musical. Beverely Klein is a real treat in both her two main numbers (The Grand Fezziwig Annual Company Christmas Ball, and, Make Hey Cause Tonight You Die). They are terrific songs, and having her sing parts of them just makes them near perfect, and to have Paul Leonard are her partner in the latter is just brilliant. Meanwhile Philip Whitchurch makes an excellently convincing Scrooge.
All in all it is a joy to see this super Christmas musical find perhaps itís natural home at The West Yorkshire Playhouse in snowy Leeds, complete with a lovely new song Christmas Time. Letís hope that Leeds sees more of Jason Carrís work performed here in the future.
Off Site Links:
The West Yorkshire Playhouseís Official Website: http://www.wyp.org.uk/
Composer Jason Carrís Official Website: http://www.jasoncarr.org.uk/