Apparently Dickens was not content to be merely a bestselling author but was quite a decent actor as well. In several hundred performances during his lifetime he toured the country doing energetic readings of his novels that were really performances; doing all the voices and generally making a meal of it. Phil Zachariah recreates Dickens’ telling of A Christmas Carol, using the condensed text that Dickens used and even referring back to the author’s handwritten notes on the original prompt copy. At the very least, this show offers Dickens fans a unique historical insight.
The Famous Spiegeltent is an ideal setting for this; you can almost imagine you’re in a tent at some rural fairground in the 19th century. The audience when I saw the show seemed a little too respectful, as though in a museum (perhaps a musical interlude to warm everyone up a bit might help?). In fact, Zachariah has superb projection and, like Dickens himself, would be more than capable of keeping an unruly audience under control. The crowd should be laughing, clapping and cheering as the mood takes them (I can almost see them echoing back the famous lines, Rocky Horror style). They should be overexcited because it’s strong stuff – even in this context, where all you actually see is a man dressed in a suit, with a book as his only prop. A Christmas Carol is packed with pathos, funny voices and supernatural surprises, all skilfully blended into one of the most gloriously sentimental stories ever written.
Much of A Christmas Carol is about having a good time; not selfishly but wholeheartedly, as though it’s actually a duty to do so. When Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back to see his Christmases past each episode is more poignant than the last – the lonely child with no one to play with, the prideful young man who breaks off his engagement without a second thought – but, in Zachariah’s telling of it at least, there’s none more touching than that of the shindig given by Scrooge’s boss, Mr Fezziwig. Nothing at all remarkable happens. There’s just drinking and laughing and merrymaking: as the Ghost of Christmas Past remarks, “A small matter to make these silly folks so full of gratitude”. Scrooge, watching the celebration with his ghostly guide, remembers it vividly now that he is reminded. How could he have ever forgotten such wonders? The description of Fezziwig‘s joyous dancing, and Zachariah’s very physical recreation of it here, seems miraculous indeed. In effect, this is a scene about a selfish man being deeply moved, transformed even, by the memory of his old boss making a fool of himself at the office Christmas party. It’s brilliant stuff.
What is A Christmas Carol but a celebration of the ordinary, and of the potential for greatness that lies dormant within us all, even the most hardhearted and misanthropic? I defy anyone to see this production and remain a Christmas cynic. How could you say “bah humbug”, after you’ve seen Zachariah do Scrooge’s marvellously rusty laugh during the closing scenes? Scrooge almost cuts himself shaving, explains Dickens, because he’s jumping up and down with glee – and why? Nothing has changed, except Scrooge himself. He appreciates being alive.
Phil Zachariah gives a flawless performance as Dickens and the other characters, particularly Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Director James Adler’s interpretation leans more towards comedy than some adaptations, with even characters like Scrooge’s nephew becoming eccentric creations, but there’s enough suspense to be had from Scrooge’s interactions with the ghosts to keep the tone varied. The approach seems right. After all, perhaps Dickens’ greatest gift was the ability to draw out the humanity of his characters through humour, compelling us to care all the more when they are touched by tragedy. This is a show that deserves to be seen at Christmas and enjoyed in the spirit that Dickens intended.
Eagles Nest Theatre
Charles Dickens Performs A Christmas Carol
Venue: The Famous Spiegeltent | The Arts Centre Forecourt 100 St Kilda Road
Dates: Saturday 15th & Sunday 16th December at 2pm.
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or www.ticketmaster.com.au
Melbourne Metropolitan Tour
Dec 9 @ 2:00pm Strathmore Theatrical Arts Group
Tickets: (03) 9419 6316
Dec 15 @ 7.30pm Cardinia Cultural Centre
Tickets: 1300 887 624
Dec 20 @ 7:00pm Knox Community Arts Centre
Tickets: (03) 9729 7287
Dec 21 & 22 @ 7:00pm Southern Peninsula Arts Centre
Tickets: 5986 8204