Christmas Is A Tale Of Three Ghost Stories For Mark Gatiss

It’s hard to imagine someone better suited to rethink Dickens’s Yuletide ghost story than Mark Gatiss. Or a better place for him to do it than the neglected, atmospherically semi-derelict Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace, where it’s opened after an initial run at Nottingham Playhouse.

The former League of Gentleman star blends his love of horror and humour with obvious respect for the source text. Nicholas Farrell’s misanthropic Scrooge pecks his way through the action like a mangy, fussy bird. Bells toll, shadows loom, and ragged phantoms flit over the audience’s head. I’ve seen countless stage adaptations of the novel but don’t think I’ve ever heard the lovely Dickensian words spoken here by Jo Eaton-Kent’s Ghost of Christmas Past: “Would you so soon, with worldly hands, put out this wonderful light that I give?”

A set made up of towering filing cabinets and stark lighting give Adam Penford’s production an almost expressionist tone. I’m not a huge fan of back-projection, but here images of satanic smokestacks, crashing waves, or the turning pages of a book help to magnify the onstage action. Despite its rightness, the venue’s cavernous size threatens to overwhelm the show. That it never actually does is a credit to all involved.

Nicholas Farrell as Scrooge (Manuel Harlan)
Nicholas Farrell as Scrooge (Manuel Harlan)

Gatiss himself rears up impressively as the spectre of Scrooge’s late partner Marley, pallid and undulating, wrapped in chains of guilt that could anchor the QE2. He even builds his part up a bit: we see Marley conk out at his desk, and Scrooge snuff out his candle to save money. Fair enough. Because: funny.

Dickens’s moral message comes over strongly. The three ghosts that teach Scrooge the error of his ways are angry or affronted by his rejection of humanity. The figures of Want and Ignorance shown to him are emaciated puppet-children, and we see Bob Cratchit weep over Tiny Tim’s corpse. On the lighter side, there’s joyful dancing and a stirring rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful.

There’s less of Scrooge’s own deprived childhood here than in Jack Thorne’s version at the Old Vic, but more of his giddy delight when offered a shot at redemption. Farrell’s antic capering is irresistible. Scrooge has to be played by an actor you’d like to have a drink with, so his change of heart feels like a homecoming, rather than the deathbed conversion of an “old sinner”.

Farrell and Gatiss are surrounded by an ensemble cast that embraces dependable veteran Christopher Godwin - as the narrator who springs a late surprise – and Zak Ford-Williams and Aoife Gaston, both making impressive stage debuts.

As someone who finds Dickens’s writing cloying, I approach the versions of this story that wheel round at this time of the year with trepidation, the words “bah, humbug” ready on my lips. And every single time – well, almost - I am won over. Mark Gatiss joins an honourable line of artists who’ve made this over-familiar but indestructible and ever-relevant story feel fresh and new.

Alexandra Palace, to Jan 9; christmascarolonstage.co.uk

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