The idea of Patrick Stewart doing a one-man production of A Christmas Carol was a surprising one, but also one that I felt knew what was going to happen. I presumed that he’d read the book out on his own, using his unmistakable voice to enliven proceedings; nothing terribly difficult, and not terribly interesting, apart from the fact that Patrick Stewart is doing it. Basically, the sort of thing Dickens would have done when he toured England. That was enough for my girlfriend and I to book tickets for the opening night’s performance at the Albery Theatre in London.
And indeed, Stewart came out striding onto the stage at the start, bearing a big red book. He opened it, said a couple of words, put it down on a lectern at the front and then didn’t look it at for the next two hours. Now, I know that good actors are supposed to memorise their lines well – it’s their job – but to see Stewart reciting practically the entire book from memory, with no prompting and only one break, was very impressive.
Reciting isn’t a good description. Acting is. Stewart played all the parts, from the narrator to Scrooge to all the members of the Crachit family, to random merchants in the street and little children. At first, this seemed rather odd and very occasionally confusing, since his switching between characters involved nothing more than perhaps moving a step or two and changing his voice (no changing clothes, for example). However, after a while it became completely natural and I forgot that it was Stewart out there, and instead really believed that he was playing the characters. My only other experience of this was watching Being John Malkovich and completely believing that John Cusack inhabited John Malkovich’s body by the end of the movie – it’s that sense of immersion that makes for a brilliant actor. You can perfectly visualise the Crachit’s Christmas dinner thanks to Stewart, despite the fact that the only things on the stage are a table and the Captain of the Enterprise.
A Christmas Carol features a lot of Dickensian humour. Many might believe that Stewart, being rather dour in most of his roles, wouldn’t be able to pull this off. However, anyone who saw him in Extras recently will know that he’s perfectly capable of being funny, and several people who worked on Star Trek: TNG have said that, of a cast full of jokers, Patrick Stewart was the biggest one. His humour really shined in A Christmas Carol – not merely for the bitingly sarcastic Scrooge, but also for Mrs Crachit and the various children, whom he often danced around the stage as.
Aside from Stewart, the only other person actually working on the show while it was running was the lighting guy. Since the set consisted of a chair, desk, table and lectern which Stewart moved about himself, the lighting had to indicate the setting, mood and time of day, which it did in a very good, very sparse manner. As for sound, Stewart handled that himself. Our first treat of this was of the bells ringing the time. While Stewart was curled up asleep on the table (which at this was representing a bed), he said ‘Guh-dooiinnngg’ twelve times. It seemed a bit stupid the first time he did it, but it rapidly became a running joke that Stewart exploited later on in a wink to the audience.
The final part of Stewart’s performance that impressed me was his ability to rapidly change roles and emotions. This exhibited itself best when he was playing Bob Crachit and crying over the body of Tiny Tim, and within a split second, he switched back to the narrator. Ditto for when Scrooge starts his hacking laughter towards the end; it’s not that he doesn’t do it well in the rest of the play, but at those particular points, he does it so quickly and dramatically that I was taken aback.
The show wasn’t perfect. Stewart did occasionally fluff his lines, and I felt that the ghost of the past and the ghost of the future were a little boring and indistinct (more than they were supposed to be). Other than that, I can’t think of any other problems, so I’m duty bound to recommend the show. I’ve seen a number of plays in London since I moved down here, including the excellent new production of Sweeney Todd, and this has probably been the best of the lot. A Christmas Carol is on until December 31st in London, and while it’s possible he might do it again next year, I wouldn’t count on it, so if you want to see it, get tickets now.