Unique adaptation of A Christmas Carol makes use of immersive environment at Campbell House
Most people who have grown up in our yuletide-obsessed culture know the story of A Christmas Carol, but as a Jewish chorister weary of performing in nonstop Christmas concerts every December, I’ve largely steered clear of it. My interest was piqued, however, by The Three Ships Collective/Soup Can Theatre’s promise of an immersive version that explores Toronto’s lovely, period-appropriate Campbell House.
As it turns out, Justin Haigh’s adaptation of Dickens’ classic, which leans more heavily on its human relationships and less on its religious aspects, helps to prove why the piece and its moral message are so enduring. Christmas or not, who hasn’t dreamed that the rich and powerful might suddenly see their way toward upholding their share of the social contract?
The miserly Scrooge’s visitation by spirits of Christmas past, present, and future is given a tight and compact adaptation here. Haigh emphasizes Scrooge’s absolute, stiff misery at the opening – even his most famous “joke” is given to Marley, and his lines are more cutting and cruel than the cold. He’s added scenes, featuring new characters that Scrooge has wronged for showing compassion, that are resolved later in satisfying ways, and added depth to some existing relationships.
He’s also included other moments from Scrooge’s past not in the original story to elegantly and clearly show the psychological factors which led to Scrooge becoming the man he is, such as a father with poor business sense being sent to debtor’s prison on Christmas, and a meet-cute with his one-time fiancée Belle (a winning and irrepressible Heather Marie Annis). The few songs seem less necessary, but are at least rollicking fun.
Beyond the occasional broad line reading or variable accent, the acting is also a treat. The cast’s cheer is winning, and the emotions on display thoroughly moving. Thomas Gough is excellent in portraying both Scrooge’s malevolence and gradual change of heart, seeming genuinely stunned by his glimpses into the past. His evil was not of the mustache-twirling variety, but that of someone empty, hollowed out by bitterness and apathy. After he has his epiphany, it’s gratifying to see that the grouchy, awkward veneer doesn’t just slough off overnight, making his advances bashfully warm and tentative rather than turning him into Santa on Prozac.
Michael Hogan as Ebenezer’s younger self believably plays up the man’s social anxiety and impulsive behaviour, Nicholas Koy Santillo is a quiet but poignantly beleaguered Bob Cratchit, and Chloe Bradt as Tiny Tim and Child Ebenezer gave the most measured and endearingly understated performance in the cast, a rarity for child actors.
The complicated proceedings are ably directed by Sarah Thorpe, who has effectively matched the streamlined scenes with the most appropriate space in the house for each scene. The homely Cratchit family kitchen in the basement contrasts with Scrooge’s own imposing four-poster bed on the upper floor, and scenes on the stairs have a transitional feeling. Wood fireplaces add seasonally-appropriate smells, and the chill of Scrooge’s office is made real by both the script and a slight draft.
Lighting created a wonderfully creepy mood for Scrooge’s bedroom, facilitating an excellent quick-change and highlighting a minimalist and terrifying Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Annis again, with Darth Vader-worthy breathing). Other scenes had room for more atmospheric choices; it’s unclear how much the company has leave to play with the house’s lighting, but much of the story felt over-bright for Scrooge, a character with a predilection for darkness. Costumes (Madeline Ius) are beautiful, especially the understated Art Nouveau dress worn by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Justine Christensen) that fits nicely with her ethereally calm demeanour.
While I loved the ambiance provided by the settings, I couldn’t help wishing that there had been more immersive elements to go with the audience’s movement. As our guide, the ghost of Jacob Marley (Marcel Dragonieri) provided us with the most interaction, by moodily and with great ennui directing us where to go. His put-upon air was entertaining, surprisingly maintaining its charm throughout – while also subtly suggesting that Hell is being trapped in an immersive theatre piece.
Otherwise, though, our only job was to watch each scene play out while standing in a corner. It’s a very linear story, negating a “choose your own adventure” type meandering like other shows at Campbell House, such as Hogtown: The Interactive Experience. However, the occasional lovely moment in between scenes, such as Scrooge’s flight with the Ghost of Christmas Present (a delightfully scenery-chewing Kat Letwin) being heard from above as we head into the basement, made me hope for more.
Ultimately, though, only Scrooge and theatre critics would lodge such a complaint against a production that already gives so much. This Christmas-weary wanderer was quite charmed, and for those who welcome those visions of sugar plums, it’s bound to delight.
- A Christmas Carol plays at Campbell House (160 Queen St. W) until Sunday, December 22nd.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:00PM and 9:00PM, and Sunday at 5:00PM and 7:00PM.
- Tickets are $25-35 and can be purchased online or at the door.
- The performance requires audience members to walk, stand close to each other, and ascend and descend stairs. A very limited number of seats in each room may be reserved for patrons who can walk, but are unable to stand for long periods of time.
Photo of the cast of A Christmas Carol by Laura Dittman