A Christmas Carol: How Scrooge is saving theatres this Christmas
An outdoor Christmas story is performed at the Theater Royal in Bury St. Edmunds
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published in late 1843. Within a few weeks, stage versions cooled the thorns of the Victorian theatergoers - and warmed their hearts too.
But the ghostly story of the stingy, misanthropic Scrooge and his spiritual redemption was more in the theater this year than ever. Is there anything about the story that speaks at difficult times?
Earlier this year, Owen Calvert-Lyons took over the historic Theater Royal in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. He looked forward to staging Cinderella as his annual Christmas panto - the financial foundation that keeps many British theaters liquid for the rest of the year.
Rebecca Peyton emerges from the dark as the Ghost of Christmas Future
But he began to wonder how disruptive the Covid-19 pandemic could be for theater everywhere. Indeed, despite the tightening of restrictions elsewhere, Suffolk remains in stage two this weekend and shows can continue if they are reasonably socially distant.
"So I decided to do our outdoor Christmas show in the city center. But that meant finding something shorter and relatively easy to stage," he says.
"A Christmas story was the obvious choice - it's easier to find dramatic shortcuts to a story that viewers are already familiar with.
"The story also works well with a small cast of five like ours - and certain effects really suit a winter evening."
Andrew Lincoln plays Scrooge in the Old Vic Christmas Story
Actress Rebecca Peyton, who emerges from the darkness on stilts as a giant black-clad ghost of the Christmas future, is an image not to be forgotten.
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Bury St. Edmunds' version of A Christmas Carol is one of at least two dozen adaptations announced across the UK for this Christmas.
The Liverpool Playhouse version, for example, also has a cast of five and it went on. Other releases this year ranged from humble solo shows to the lavish West End musical that Brian Conley appeared in - until it and several other Scrooges were overthrown by rapidly changing coronavirus restrictions.
London's Old Vic has cleverly re-staged the production, which was created in 2017: This year it will only be broadcast via live stream, without the audience having to worry.
The adaptation of the Old Vic works well as a zoom broadcast
Andrew Lincoln as Scrooge leads a cast live every evening in the impressive adaptation of the renowned stage and screenwriter Jack Thorne (BBC One's His Dark Materials and stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). It's a beautiful production that works well with Zoom.
According to Thorne, surprisingly few changes had to be made to the show.
"Coronavirus forced some changes - no one is now being worn by another actor, for example. But the substance of the piece is the same and Rob Howell's brilliant set and music are still there."
Why does Thorne believe that a story written to be read in a book would be suitable for the stage 177 years later?
Golda Rosheuvel as the spirit of the Christmas present in the production of the Old Vic
"One basic thing has always been that it is in four acts - the arrival of the three ghosts and then Scrooge's redemption at the end. It's a beautiful Ibsen-like structure. And the story is clearly about a character who helps theatrically.
“But one reason Dickens is a literary hero to me is that he almost always frames a story through a political landscape - but he never lets that landscape dominate the narrative. That is definitely true in A Christmas Carol and I adore him for this."
It is easy to assume that Covid-19 triggered the flood of Christmas carols in 2020. It is a story that can easily be staged for theater makers in difficult times, but offers wonderful comfort for an audience that needs joy in their life.
Thorne instead focuses on the poverty that Dickens' story gave to his troubled heart.
Jack Thorne's production focuses on the poverty in Dickens' story, illustrated here by John Dagleish's appearance as Bob Cratchit
"It is shocking that food banks - which hardly existed as a child - have become the norm. I feel like we are failing society in the way Dickens would have recognized.
"We are returning to a Victorian notion of what Britain should be and Covid has only accelerated this. I am sure this is why so many people will find a Christmas story in their hearts in 2020.
"In the end, Dickens gives the moneylender Scrooge the redemption by sharing - and that shows us that there are ways we can all be redeemed.
"After every performance we ask for donations to charity and this year to the FoodCycle charity. They provide meals to people in food poverty - and the online donations went through the roof."
Oklahoma City's Lyric Theater is staging a Christmas story at Harn Homestead
Dickens' story is not only set in British theaters. It's a seasonal favorite in the US as well. Director Michael Baron is directing it for the tenth year in a row at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City.
"In American theater, A Christmas Carol is the big vacation attraction for families, just like the Nutcracker is for ballet companies," he says.
But nearly 5,000 miles from Suffolk, Baron had also considered how difficult the pandemic could be for the rest of 2020.
"And so you're looking for a way to turn it into something positive," he says.
W Jerome as Scrooge with Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, staged by the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City
"We're really lucky to have Harn Homestead close by, a beautiful open-air collection of historic American buildings in a large park in downtown Oklahoma City.
"I'm not going to say that it is exactly like Victorian London, but when you use it for history it creates a historical feel that people just love. And we still have a cast of 17. Actually we hope the place next year to use whatever happens to the virus. "
Baron takes on some of Thorne's ideas about why A Christmas Carol is so popular this year.
"Well, first of all, it's a great story, and that's never going to change. But I think this year especially the political elements and the need for hope and empathy with those around you in America really came to the fore.
Kristin Küns as the ghost of the Christmas past in a Christmas story at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City
"The parts of the story that deal with the Cratchit family's poverty and Tiny Tim's illness and death, of course, are set in England. But they remind people that America's health system is not the same and the rich are better off goes.
"And there's a coronavirus aspect too. There's a line in the script where in the future sequence a character says about Scrooge, 'Oh, I hope he didn't die of something that caught him.' And this year you can hear the audience catching their breath at this point in a way they never have. "
In the years the production existed, the theater has raised more than $ 200,000 (£ 148,000) from the audience for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. "You see people on food lines here in Oklahoma City, which is shocking.
"Every year I tell the cast that there is a lot of spectacle and ghost and really funny dialogue that comes straight from Dickens. But the whole story relies on finding the honest emotion in the death of Tiny Tim.
"This year - outside - the wind is blowing and maybe it is snowing and we even had an ice storm one weekend. But we still have audible tears in the audience because thoughts of death have been so present with coronavirus lately.
"Every year Dickens' story reminds us of the humanity and generosity that we should show anyway."
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