The MAC, Belfast
27 November to 5 January 2020
Writers: Tara Lynne O’Neill & Simon Magill
Tidings of comfort and joy replace Dickensian filth and misery in this handsome, rip-roaring new take on a Christmas staple. In the collective hands of two actors/writers – Tara Lynne O’Neill and Simon Magill – and an actor/director – Sean Kearns – this fiendishly clever reworking is a knowing hymn to the restorative power of theatre to split the sides and soothe the troubled soul.
Taking on board the old adage of writing about the thing you know best, O’Neill has opted for a daring departure into the world in which she has worked since she was a teenager. In tandem with the MAC’s creative director Simon Magill, himself an actor back in the day, she has contrived to craft this festive homage to the performing arts into an apt and timely metaphor for penny pinching made good.
The tale of delicate Tiny Tim (Jenny Coates) and his downtrodden parents unfolds at the Marley & Scrooge Theatre, where Bobbie Cratchit (the excellent Molly Logan) does the books and surviving proprietor Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Croxford) rules with an iron fist. There is ne’er a glimpse of Tim’s hard working dad, Bob Cratchit, because he’s away on a gruelling, poorly paid tour, which will keep him from his family at Christmas. Get it?
The MAC’s towering Downstairs performance space is filled with Dianna Ennis’s busy backstage set, which Paul Keogan’s rainbow coloured lighting turns from drab workplace into a world of wonder. The costume rack, dressing room mirror and production portraits take on vibrant new life.
Under director Sean Kearns, one of Northern Ireland’s finest performers, seven versatile actors play a cast of thousands. Five of them are reborn as ghosts of theatrical Christmases past, present and future, beaming or grimacing from their framed headshots before taking on human form.
Croxford is the beating heart of a narrative, which sees a grumpy tyrant reborn as a twinkly champion of the poor. Around him, Darren Franklin, Maeve Byrne, Jolene O’Hara and Maeve Smyth, switch seamlessly between costumes and characters, never missing a beat.
Garth McConaghie’s sprightly score cleverly reflects the mood of the period, while the phantom characters – wearing an assortment of powdered wigs, crinolines, doublet and hose – morph dizzyingly between Restoration comedy, Shakespearean tragedy and Parisian cabaret.
In true actorly fashion, aided and abetted by Kearns’s mischievous direction, they jostle for the spotlight and trade bitchy jibes, bringing to life the spirit of the old theatre and creating vignettes to warm Scrooge’s heart through reminders of family life in happier times.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Stage on 2 December 2019.