MAKING good use of an empty furniture shop is a useful post-recession trick, and one which Great Northern Warehouse has realised with the highly successful New Playhouse using space on Deansgate. It's understated. You might not have spotted it (it's at the Peter Street end).
There’s something about helping total strangers to pie and veg which draws in the Christmas spirit.
The pre-Christmas production is, suitably, A Christmas Carol. A Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, rescued from a miserable yet wealthy existence by assorted ghosts. This production comes with a difference; it’s not just Tiny Tim getting fed. We are too. The audience at one point sits around a huge trestle table serving one another with freshly cooked brussel sprouts and mulled wine while Scrooge gets hold of the concept of entertaining guests.
The story is so well known that any modern production faces the problem of making it fresh, bringing something to hold attention. There’s a list of possibilities – rank up the spooky factor, add songs, add Muppets. Whatever choice is made, an adult audience always knows the ending.
The Flanagan Collective’s production has been around Yorkshire for a few years, but is new to Manchester. It’s quite a fun evening and an undemanding introduction to theatre for new audiences.
The audience gathers outside the home of Scrooge (Al Barclay), to be greeted by Jacob Marley (John Holt Roberts) and taken inside to meet the familiar material as utterances of humbug, rants against the cost of workers celebrating Christmas, and an unsuccessful visit from two charity collectors set the scene. Barclay and Roberts give fine performances and audience members are encouraged to participate in minor roles.
Eventually we turn to ghosts, well one ghost, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is encouraged, with considerable reluctance, to entertain visitors, and the food arrives. The audience gathers round the table and tucks in. There’s something about helping total strangers to pie and veg which draws in the Christmas spirit. Space is at a premium, a bit like Christmas dinner at home, but there’s plenty food for all and the quality, with locally sourced food prepared by the Manchester Catering Company, is certainly acceptable. Gradually Scrooge learns how to throw a party. Games follow the food and the story weaves towards its well-known redemptive ending.
Both actors perform strongly. Barclay’s Scrooge provides a convincing miser, convincing confusion, and a heartfelt conversion. Roberts’ Marley is a secure guide throughout, telling the story with relish and judging exactly which audience members to recruit for games and minor roles. Despite the light-heartedness there are periods of deep conversation and the actors prove themselves as all-rounders, moving from jokey audience engagement and ad-lib to demanding dialogue, and back again.
Performing with only two actors does have its limitations: the key characters who bring about Scrooge’s miser-to-philanthropist transformation, Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, are absent, and Tiny Tim is a mere shadow. Instead the lessons to Scrooge are provided by the audience and relate more strongly to how to have a good time than to a lesson in our responsibilities to wider society.
The food and party atmosphere can’t completely take the place of the missing ghosts and their increasingly powerful message. This does leave some holes in the story and this production gives only a glimpse at the power of one of Dickens’ strongest, and shortest, stories. (I’d recommend adding a Christmas re-viewing of the 1951 black-and-white film with Alistair Sim and Michael Hordern, apparently now available on Blu-Ray).
However, the communal meal approach is a genuine winner, a useful reminder of the joy of shared experiences and the ease with which we can all get along, at least during the good times. I find myself wondering what would happen if the dinner-party food was in short supply, if we’d all be so happily singing Noddy Holder’s pension plan, but that’s probably a different story.
Designer and producer Brian Hook has brought his successful Hartshorn - Hook Production company to Manchester and the original and interactive show is written by North Yorkshire playwright, Alexander Wright, and directed by Tom Bellerby.
Let’s hope there’s more to come from this team. There’s a strong market in Manchester for theatre of all types and, in the week when we hear news of a new 2,000 seat theatre planned for the city centre, it’s fun to be sitting with forty people, sharing with strangers and being entertained. I’ve heard rumours that New Playhouse might not continue. I’m hoping that’s just humbug.
A Christmas Carol runs until 20 December at Great Northern Playhouse, Great Northern Warehouse, 231 - 233 Deansgate.
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