Written by Chloe M. Thornton
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
So goes the opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ much loved novella, A Christmas Carol. Morose, it may seem, the beginning to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from a ‘squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ to the man who becomes a ‘second father’ to famous Tiny Tim. Yet the tale is one so jocund and warming that you hardly need any mulled wine to fight off the frost outside.
Once again, Northern Ballet have, this year, staged the festive story at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. As I’m arching my neck upwards towards a high domed ceiling which would surely fascinate Kevin McCloud, the orchestra begin to play. Oh, well – live music! What a treat. I finish wondering about the gilded cherubs that lie on the outside of the boxes just as the hearse and accompanying mourners arrive on stage. You can’t hear me singing, but I’m repeating “Marley is dead as a door-nail” in church-choir fashion, elongating the phrase just as the dancers (who are yet to be dancing) do. Scrooge has something on his face; I can’t quite see it because I’ve forgotten my glasses – it’s some kind of mask that gives the wearer an ogre-like appearance with huge Victorian sideburns. The mourners are cleared away by this monster-like man and we watch, horrified, as he eschews any kind of human contact and barges into dancers aggressively until he finally reaches his office. I wash down a few Jelly Babies with a splash of red wine.
After a childhood of believing The Muppet Christmas Carol to be the true and original version of the story, I can’t help thinking of Bob Cratchit as Kermit the Frog incognito but the Bob Cratchit on stage isn’t green. I’m satisfied it’s him when he begins to shiver in Scrooge’s office and is given a few vicious prods in the chest by his employer. That the fictional characters of Dickens remain endearing and well-known to the general public, as well as academics, remains testament to his ability to entertain while interrogating nineteenth century milieux. Celebrated writers of his ilk; your Shakespeares and your Austins, are almost eternal in their work. Thinking of the forthcoming Romeo and Juliet film starring Damian Lewis, and Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility reminds me of A Christmas Carol‘s timelessness, which is a comforting thought given that our idea of the ‘Christmas spirit’ usually translates to pound and dollar signs.
So, the story unfolds – I’m sure you know the gist and as with any good show, the routine is littered with both sombre and comical moments. During some of the funniest movements, a sort of slap-stick approach is adopted by Scrooge’s old employer, Fezziwig and his wife. Ebenezer and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch on as Fezziwig drops his wife after having just missed her flailing elbow. The choreography is brilliant throughout but here, movements that would, in reality, be gawky and awkward remain controlled and graceful, eliciting lots of laughs and claps from the audience.
Ahh, what’s a festive performance without a bit of humour? I know a sad part’s coming. The mood’s changing. The music’s carrying me across the stage with the biffety-baffety-boff of ballet pumps as Young Scrooge’s lithe limbs follow the silhouette of Belle at the Fezziwig party. They’re coming to their end and Old Scrooge is waving his hands in front of his younger self, invisible and trying to direct the man to his young love. GO TO HER, we scream inwardly. GO TO HER, YOU FOOL. Young Scrooge, of course, is more interested in his gold coins. The young couple part and we’re once more in Scrooge’s bedchambers.
Northern Ballet have staged A Christmas Carol for twenty years now and it’s no wonder. I’m not normally one for ballet but I think I’ve been converted by such a beautiful evening. The production team and performers, under the direction of Christopher Gable, have managed to create something equally enjoyable with family, friends or partner and I admit, I am beginning to get excited for the lights and the songs and the pudding.
The closing scene is here and Ebenezer – poor soul – is bashing his tombstone with his blanket. Seamlessly, the grave turns into his bed as the ‘stone’ folds in on itself and the whole thing slides to the front of the stage. He wakes. It’s Christmas Day! Oh, thank the Heavens above, glad tidings to all – today is Christmas Day! Old Scrooge hops one-footed about the stage as he dons his tailcoat and trousers, ready for his day of merry-making and the audience is smiling as knee-high children (including Tiny Tim – who does not die) filter into the scene. The movements reflect the mood and so Scrooge now moves in allegro, performing fouettés en tournant with a grin and ease of air under a flurry of fake snow. The whipped spins and fast pace remind me of the coming parties and all the tipsy dancing (and falling) that they’ll bring. They remind me that my youngest brother will wake us when the night is not yet day to see if Father Christmas has managed to drink the bucket of Bailey’s we leave for him on Christmas Eve (Rudolph never finishes the carrot). Scrooge, a changed man, slows and shakes Tiny Tim’s hand.