Review: A Christmas Carol, at Birmingham Town Hall
It was that remarkable Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit who once said that any actor worth his salt could summon up the essence of a play in moments needing nothing in the way of sets and props, using merely his own talent.
“You can evoke King Lear to an audience consisting of nothing more than a beggar and a dead dog, under a tarpaulin in a wet meadow if you use your power of imagination. If you see it, your audience will see it,” Wolfit said.
He was always right, and he touched on a basic point – namely that our minds have an urge to narrative.
Narrrative reflects our mind’s understanding of the universe around us, and nobody understood this better than Charles Dickens and his interpreters over the years, from Dickens himself.
Few things could ever tell us more about this than A Christmas Carol with its myriad characters, from the Fezziwigs to the pathetic Bob Cratchit struggling through poverty to achieve a decent Christmas.
Using nothing more than a red carpet, a wing chair, a table and a scarf around his neck, Clive Francis began with a narrative about Dickens the writer and the London he knew and which he viewed with despair.
He then took us into the heart of A Christmas Carol, with a clear-cut picture of Ebenezer Scrooge, miserable with his solitary saucepan of gruel in an icy house where the knocker had the face of Jacob Marley stamped upon it, through the ghost sequences and on to the touching scenes in the Cratchit household where the admiration of the tiny pudding far outstripped its actual size.
Mr Francis simpered, thundered, minced (as the Fezziwigs’ winsome daughters) and sniggered (as the rag and bone dealers bargaining over Scrooge’s very underwear after a shocking picture of his death is shown to him by the ghost).
Then this astonishing actor – working alone except for a voice tape to add colour to the narrative – threw up an imaginary window and, totally reformed, sent a boy to buy the biggest turkey the neighbouring shop had, with an order to carry it round to the Cratchit family for their Christmas dinner.
Francis was superb and the Town Hall was packed to see him.
He closed to shouts of ‘bravo’ and thunderous applause, and I am quite sure that Dickens himself (who as we have seen was a noted performer of his own work) was probably there in the wings applauding too.