Fifteen happy people, all excused normal duties for the afternoon, descended upon Ipswich's Wolsey Theatre on a sunny, December afternoon to see "A Christmas Carol," in which Michael Keating was to play Scrooge.
We foregathered in the foyer, having variously arrived by train and minibus excepting Andrew and Jackie who lived locally. We shortly found ourselves surrounded by a heaving sea of primary school children and a small Christmas tree. Their teachers apart, no other adults were in sight. There are of course both advantages and disadvantages in being subsumed in a junior audience. Fewer mobile phones and digital watches punctuate the performance, but you can forget about getting in and out of the Ladies in the interval. In the event, the school parties were commendably attentive; either Ipswich infants are all well-behaved or Scrooge had them suitably cowed. Probably they were enjoying the play. While we waited, Diane distributed Christmas cards and held a raffle to see who would sit next to Michael at dinner. Having never won a raffle in my life, I was suitably gratified to find that in my declining years my luck had just changed.
In defiance of the sunny weather, the director had plunged the auditorium into suitably Dickensian gloom. One must have ambience. We stumbled around in the murk trying to read the seat numbers. I did find mine eventually - do not mock the visually challenged, they might crush your toes - but not before almost colliding with the nice young man who was selling programmes. We were seated to the right of the stage, a few rows back. The set was sparse, a door, a desk, a small bucket of coal. There was probably more, but having neglected to write notes until several weeks later, I cannot remember precisely what they were. As I saw another production of Christmas Carol a few days later I may have confused some details.
Scrooge leaned malevolently from a high desk over the three clerks - didn't you ever wonder why Scrooge and Marley had two partners but only one clerk - crouched shivering below him. The three actors wrote furiously, muttering Scratch, Scratch in a sibilant stage whisper. Scrooge was suitably cantankerous, Bob Cratchit suitably poor but cheerful. The carol singers duly came to warble, and were yelled at for their trouble. (Am I the only person who would like to shake Scrooge by the hand, or does nobody else get irritated at opening the door to a succession of sniggering adolescents who can only manage two line of Once in Royal David's City? Bah, humbug!)
Two philanthropic gentlemen were shown the door when they asked Scrooge for a donation to charity. "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" asked Scrooge, evidently a disciple of Malthus. Next appeared Scrooge's nephew, full of relentless seasonal benevolence. Scrooge saw him off, too, and who could really blame him? The lad seemed incapable of taking no for answer. (I never used to sympathise with Scrooge - perhaps I'm just getting older and grumpier myself.)
Just how old is Scrooge, anyway? Unvaryingly shown as an elderly man, he's actually quite likely to be merely middle-aged. Doubtless he's being inundated with Saga Holidays brochures and junk mail about early retirement packages, which would explain why he's so cross.
It was time for Scrooge to go home. Bits of scenery were whisked around to represent his front door, the knocker of which was effectively magnified into Marley's ghostly face by means of lighting. Once through the door, the shaken but as yet comparatively unstirred Scrooge settled down by the fireplace for another quiet night in with a bowl of gruel - disagreeable word, isn't it?
The entrance of Marley's ghost came as a bit of a shock to him. Scrooge gamely put the phantom down to undigested beef or a piece of cheese, but the ghost wasn't having any (either of Scrooge's assertions or of the cheese). He duly delivered his message about the forthcoming Ghosts and then clanked off into the night.
Having donned a night-shirt and fetching night-cap, Scrooge retired to a four-poster bed underneath a dangling lamp to await the arrival of Visitation Number One. The Ghost of Christmas Past duly arrived on schedule in a flash of light. He was a youth of mildly angelic appearance and was rather innovatively perched on roller skates to allow for gliding. You could get the idea but you could also see an incipient wobble. Scrooge wisely didn't clutch the ghost's garments but trotted closely behind.
They first returned to Scrooge's childhood haunts, where some of his friends were seen skating on the ice, the actors bent forward in effective imitation of moving skaters, murmuring Swish, Swish. Scrooge began to soften before our eyes. We quickly passed through familiar scenes. Scrooge's delight at seeing his younger self absorbed in stories, his sister's bringing him home, and the frolic of Fezziwig's party all, skillfully played with real warmth.
Scrooge's sweetheart ended their engagement, declaring he was obsessed with making money because he feared the world too much.(In 1843 was a pretty arguable statement. Genteel poverty and debt, as Dickens well knew, were very much to be feared. Don't forget this was the England in which the Factory Act restricting the working hours of women and children to a mere ten hours a day was over a decade in the future.) You could see the lady's point, but as Woody Allen has said, "Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons."
It was time for the Ghost of Christmas Past to merge into the bedpost, making way for his colleague. Again the clock struck one but no Ghost flung back the bed curtains. (Tempting to think he was on a delayed ghost train and even now listening to the guard's apology for any inconvenience that may have been caused.) But no. At last Scrooge went exploring and found the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present nearby.
In films this gentleman tends to come surrounded by copious quantities of food and drink, rather like an Iceland Foods ad. but tastier. The stage being a different medium, we used the power of our imagination as the Ghost led a nervous Scrooge through scenes of the Deserving Poor celebrating Christmas, arriving eventually chez Cratchit. Thus far the cast had kept sentimentality firmly at bay. Could they keep it that way with the challenge of Tiny Tim looming?
(Wouldn't it be great, just for once, to be told that Tiny Tim had been presenting challenging behaviour in church and had whacked the vicar with his crutch? Or that Mrs Cratchit had refused to cook the dinner and was off down the pub?) There is really no way out of this most famously glutinous of scenes. The cast got over it as well as could reasonably be expected, valiantly consuming their small pudding and declaring God bless us, everyone with fervour. Scrooge appeared suitably moved. You could tell he was already wondering what to do for the little lad. Perhaps a trip to Disneyland?
'Ere long it was time to meet the macabre and silent Ghost of Christmas Future. He was dressed in an all-encompassing cowled robe, possibly a cast-off Servalan had bestowed upon the local Oxfam shop. Scrooge, by now exceedingly remorseful, was shown a series of scenes marking the unmourned death of a figure whose identity he was surprisingly slow to guess. (Perhaps Dickens should have re-named his story Four Hauntings and a Funeral?)
The scene where enterprising thieves (evidently the Undeserving Poor and therefore totally lacking in the spirit of Christmas) take the dying man's bedclothes is always chilling. It was all getting a bit heavy for poor Scrooge who brokenly asked to be shown a death connected with some tenderness. Back we went to the Cratchit dwelling, where else, to find everyone was feeling a trifle glum. Tiny Tim was no longer on the premises, having fallen off his crutch and joined the Heavenly angels in time for Christmas. At least Dickens had the decency to have the little chap expire between chapters, thus sparing his readers a lachrymose farewell deathbed. Perhaps he thought he couldn't top the Death of Little Nell two years earlier. Scrooge's ultimate fearfulness and contrition came through very powerfully, especially when his earlier words about prisons and workhouses were thrown back at him. His pleading with the Ghost to tell him if this vision of the future is inevitable was moving. The audience was very quiet, with only the occasional cough although it was December. Probably they were all sucking Hall's Soothers, or more aptly, mint humbugs.
Back at the bedpost, and suddenly it was Christmas morning and Scrooge a changed man. Never again would he walk the City streets grumbling about the price of a cappuccino and abusing sellers of the Big Issue. Leaping from the bed, Michael capered gleefully about the stage in a manner of which the ghost of Alistair Sim would surely approve.
Scrooge set about his new life by sending Mrs Cratchit a truly enormous turkey. I wonder what her reaction was when it turned up on her doorstep? Just what you need on Christmas morning, a year's supply of fresh meat and the baker's oven down the road just closed. Difficult to believe that Dickens ever cooked anything.
So we came to the happy ending. Scrooge, fairly bursting with benevolence, took dinner with his tiresome nephew and wrote a large cheque for the two philanthropic gentlemen. No doubt he pondered the while on his forthcoming role as Tiny Tim's second father, making a note in his diary to call his lawyer about setting up a trust fund. I would like to think he went home from Fred's that night with a bottle of Glenfiddich and something nice pour l'homme from the Body Shop, hastily concocted presents for an unexpected guest.
The following day, being a born-again Human Being did not stop Scrooge playing a trick on Bob Cratchit (alias Scratchit, apparently) before revealing that the family's troubles were at an end. What a good thing in the long run that Bob had been Poor but Honest and hadn't been fiddling the books to help feed his kids.
Scrooge proposed discussing the family's future over a bowl of smoking bishop - at least, he does in the book and in one of the plays I saw, and it's really too glorious a phrase to leave out. Much too soon, the cast were rendering a final song and God was blessing us, everyone. Truly a delightful production.
Michael had kindly agreed to join us afterwards for a meal, so we stood to one side in the foyer as the primary school hordes swept through, knocking the Christmas tree over in passing. It was removed to a cupboard for its own safety, but mysteriously reappeared - maybe rehearsing for MacBeth. Some of us congregated under an awning labelled "creche," or loitering with intent as Jackie put it, but that too was removed.
With Michael's arrival we moved out into the early evening. The minibus was parked on a short stay space, so Jackie volunteered to conduct it to somewhere more suitable. The rest of us took the scenic route on foot via Marks and Spencer; we paused here a few minutes and certain people, who shall be nameless as long as they pay me money, thought briefly of doing a bit of festive busking. We reached the restaurant before the bus party, naturally. Andrew had made the booking - thank you, Andrew - and our food was pre-ordered. All we had to do was try and remember what we'd chosen the month before, which is about easy as answering a question on Round Britain Quiz.
Once we were all gathered, Diane produced large quantities of crackers and was quite ruthless about making us all put on our paper hats. She took lots of photos, I fear. My cracker contained a plastic corkscrew, just like the one in the cracker I'd got at the staff Christmas party the preceding week - is someone trying to tell me something? The portions of food were exceedingly generous but we persevered. It was well past seven by the time we stopped eating, drinking and talking - I was delighted to know that Michael had recently visited my favourite second-hand bookshop in Rutland -and regretfully concluded that it was time to go.
It was a lovely outing to be part of, especially at Christmas. I am particularly indebted to Horizon for once again felicitously arranging it on a date that coincided with a business trip I had to make, otherwise I could not have afforded to come. There really IS a Santa Claus, y'know.
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Last updated on 05th of May 2001.