“Is there no festive spirit in that businessman’s heart of yours?”
Of all the various productions of A Christmas Carol that can be found dotted around London this winter, I doubt any are as well suited to their venue as MokitaGrit’s production at the King’s Head Theatre on Islington’s Upper Street. There’s something old-fashioned about this cosy theatre pub and it suits this Victorian, gothic-inflected version of Charles Dickens’ famous story down to the ground.
Opening with, and then continually narrated by Dickens himself (played by a genial Nigel Lister), trying to convince a publisher and a pub full of locals that he has a story worth telling, a cast of 16 effortlessly sing, play and dance their way through this familiar tale with such inventiveness and vibrancy that you could not feel more festive by the end if you tried. Using every inch of available space, the cast flow around the full scope of the stage and even up and down the aisles with such ease and confidence, bringing the audience with them right into the heart of the action. I loved the arrival of the chain-dragging spirits, though its probably not for the faint of heart, and there was some clever use of puppetry and props throughout which kept the dynamic energy going.
Jonathan Battersby’s Scrooge is nicely curmudgeonly and blessed with some excellent facial expressions (one mustn’t forget that Scrooge actually spends a lot of this story just watching things) and his flight over London with Kilke Van Buren’s Cinderella-like Ghost of Christmas Past is beautifully realised. Adam Stone’s Bob Cratchit, a character that is impossible not to like, is also really well accomplished, his concern for his family movingly played.
What Phil Wilmott has cleverly done is ensure that much of the music is instantly recognisable, as in places he has written new lyrics over familiar Christmas tunes, and elsewhere traditional carols are used which allows the audience easy access into the emotion of the material. And what emotion is evoked: a beautifully moving and truly affecting ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ gave me chills and a ‘Silent Night’ with a candlelit vigil for the dying Tiny Tim was touchingly emotional without being mawkish. But there were lighter moments too: Christmas in Camden Town was a hoot and is surely destined to become a staple song of the season if it gets into the right hands (the Christmas in New York team would be my bet) and the choreography that accompanied The Miser’s Dead was well-drilled and visually pleasing.
Everything about this production felt highly professional: the singing was as good as a proper choir with some beautiful harmonising and complex arrangements, impressive musical ability from the numerous instrumental, clever and interesting choreography and to top it all off, strong acting. What makes it even more impressive was the ease with which the cast frequently switched between all of these roles. On a final note, it was pleasing to see a large number of children in the audience for this show, as I really felt it was fringe musical theatre at its best: accomplished, inventive and above all, highly enjoyable.