Theatre review: A Christmas ghost story with soul

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

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Where: Belfry Theatre

When: To Dec. 16

Rating: 4 1/2 (out of five)

Michael Shamata has directed his clever stage adaptation Charles Dickens' greatest hit for some years now - and it shows.

It's a popular piece; Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre has served up Shamata's version of A Christmas Carol for years. It's easy to see why it's a seasonal favourite.

The show is smart, surefooted and - in the best sense of the word - theatrical.

It recognizes that A Christmas Carol is, first and foremost, a ghost story.

More importantly, Shamata, once again in the director's chair, has scraped away clichéd detritus that's accumulated around Scrooge over a century and a half.

Ebenezer, engagingly played at the Belfry Theatre by Tom McBeath, is presented as a living and breathing human being.

When he bemoans poor folk who seek handouts, it seems a genuine proto-Tea Party lament.

Shamata encourages his 14-member cast to dig to the hearts of their characters, playing them as real people motivated by bona-fide feelings and beliefs. approach. But apparently it's not, given sentimentalized and soulless interpretations of A Christmas Carol we've all seen on stage, film and television.

With A Christmas Carol, Dickens reminds us of a simple lesson - love, kindness and family trump the accumulation of wealth. To redeem old man Scrooge's soul, Jacob Marley's ghost haunts his former business partner on Christmas Eve.

Scrooge, he announces, will be visited by three spirits who show him the error of his miserly ways.

Throughout, Shamata and company strive to make A Christmas Carol a visual delight. It's mostly accomplished with simple devices. At the outset, a white tablecloth is miraculously whisked from a banquet table to the heavens. Marley's unorthodox entrance, which cannot be revealed without ruining the surprise, is another bit of effective stage magic.

Scene changes are transformed into micro-ballets by performers who twirl elegantly.

The show is strong on atmosphere. Lights and music are used expertly. As befitting a ghost story, the stage is often dimly illuminated. Spooky scenes are contrasted with beautifully directed festive sequences brimming with life.

There's a wonderful scene in which a frowning Scrooge enters a street, bustling with cheerful citizens (the stage has a cast-of-thousands look - a minor miracle given its smallness). Even more memorable is Mr. Fezzi-wig's Christmas party, in which celebrants enact a minuet that captures life's fleeting joy like nothing else.

McBeath's plain-spoken approach is apparent from the outset.

On Thursday night, he delivered Scrooge's infamous "Are there no prisons" speech with an unadorned impatience that captured perfectly the character's misanthropic heart.

In his pursuit of naturalism, McBeath never downplays Scrooge. He emphasizes certain words in a quirky, imperious manner. And when Scrooge is "transformed" near the play's end, McBeath offered a puckish radiance that lit up the stage and undercut sentimentality.

Gerry Mackay, a superior actor, plays the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - as well as a narrator bookending the show. In Brechtian style, this narrator identifies himself to the audience as an "actor." It's Shamata's addition; I'm unsure what it accomplishes, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Mackay's Marley is believable. His ghost of Christmas past, a spooky oddball, was less successful.

The cast is uniformly strong. Brian Linds makes Mr. Fezziwig a randy Fal-staffian rogue - it's the sort of comic character he's good at playing.

Jan Wood added individualistic touches as Mrs.

Fezziwig and Mrs. Dilbur; this is especially welcome since the female characters in A Christmas Carol seem two-dimensional.

And Simeon Sanford Blades is a sweet little Tiny Tim - even when he's laid out as a corpse on a coffin.

It does seem odd to be watching A Christmas Carol half-way though November.

That aside, if you're going to pick just one yuletide entertainment this season, this one's a solid bet.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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