Directed by Owen Lewis
London (Leicester Square), Christmas 2017
On a normal day at any other time of year, Leicester Square is a crazed, mad crush of people, an insanity-inducing, cacophonous gathering of tourists and street performers. The crowd lacks a single intention, individuals and groups tripping over each other in unchoreographed movement around the crowded square. There are hordes of children to be tripped over, impromptu gatherings of groups to be steered around. There’s a frenzied failure to pay attention, with everyone’s eyes glued to phones in the searching for a GPS location, in the texting of friends, and in the taking of selfies. It is, on the best of days, a crowded, loud, and anxiety-inducing corner of London.
But in December, there is an additional, seasonal madness in the center of the vortex, as Leicester Square plays host to the “Christmas Village,” a temporary collection of seasonal food stalls and holiday gift booths. One can find mulled wine, vaguely Nordic tasty treats, and crafty Christmas decorations. Perched just at the edge of this island of artificial traditions there is a tent housing a performance space, and it is here that the Fitzrovia Radio Hour puts on its energetic version of A Christmas Carol.
Like the temporary village of which it is a part, the play offers a bit of a twist on a holiday classic: a “radio” play of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Five actors produce the Carol as if for a 1940s radio hour. Staying close to the Dickensian originary in the first minutes, the play veers into wildly new territory as it nears its end, interweaving an invented drama about the players themselves, as we discover that the actor who has traditionally played Tiny Tim has promoted himself to the role of Scrooge by arranging an “accident” that has injured the troupe’s usual star. His plan unravels when the injured star appears in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Future, revealing all and regaining his role as Scrooge. This players’ story might echo the Carol’s theme of resurrection, but it oddly suggests a kind of cosmic retribution that seems slightly out of place alongside Scrooge’s spiritual transformation. And that transformation is in some sense undercut by the restoration of the actor to his customary role.
While this creative twist felt discordant with the general spirit of its familiar originary tale, the most jarring part of this production was the venue itself. The canvas walls of the tent could not shut out the sounds of Leicester Square, and though the players invited the audience to imagine this as the natural bustle of Victorian London, the blaring beats of the boomboxes outside made it difficult to really immerse oneself in the theatrical moment. My attention was strained, and though I genuinely applaud the effort to create a fresh dramatic layer, the offering was just a trifle too corny and discordant to satisfy.
For me, the most entertaining part of the experience was watching the Fitzrovia Radio Hour’s players creating the various sound effects that would have brought such a production to life on the radio. There were the obvious tools in the soundmaker’s bag of tricks: a hinged box to replicate the sound of a door, a platform for augmenting the fall of footsteps. And, given the material, it was not surprising to see as well a bell and a set of chains. In addition to these there were the less expected tools of the audio trickster’s trade: arranged on a tier of three shelves on the wall behind the players there was an intriguing assortment of objects, among them a child’s spin top, a broken umbrella, a human skull, a jar of coins, a metal can, a cabbage, a rubber glove. Each of these items was called upon as the play progressed, the players moving through a precision choreography that moved each object, in its turn, to center stage, where it contributed its own unique sound before being returned to its spot on the shelf. There was a genuine interest in seeing these objects put to creative use to produce the sounds that created a sonic richness that did not merely augment the reading but in significant ways brought it to life.
The rubber glove, moistened with water and rubbed against an inflated balloon gave voice to the eerily transforming door-knocker. The umbrella, quickly opened and closed, suggested the flapping of wings as Scrooge flew through the air with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Many of the objects were well-chosen to entertain the ear as well as the eye, with the skull providing not only the sound of the Cratchits’ goose landing on the table but also the visual joke of the family’s meagre Christmas feast.
Watching these clever operations, it occurred to me that there was, for teachers at least, a valuable take-away here. The real star of the show was the sound effects, and that drew my focus to the auditory elements of Dickens’s story. A Christmas Carol, it is often observed, is a sensual delight. There are astonishing visual pieces, as when the door knocker transforms into the face of Marley. The story is filled with rich descriptions of food so precisely rendered that the mouth waters: we can almost taste the food on display in the shops and smell Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas pudding. Dickens’s narrator calls attention to the contrasts of heat and cold and to the feel of fabric—the ghosts’ robes, Scrooge’s bed curtains—catering to our sense of touch. But the story appeals to the ear as well, from bells and clinking chains to the sounds of holiday merriment. I have listened to A Christmas Carol many times and in many variations, but never have I heard it in quite this way, nor so intensively focused on the sounds of the text.
So this production reminded me of the text’s rich sensory array while suggesting a way of drawing my students’ focus to the same. Where a typical invitation for students to perform some piece of the story might lead them to create a mini-play with the distractions of costumes and blocking, instructing them to render a scene “as if for radio” allows them to dispense with those purely visual elements as they find ways to bring the rich auditory potential of the story to life. Simply reading a series of passages aloud, accompanied by appropriate sound effects, might focus our students’ attention on the text’s sensory details, prompting them to think about the function of sound within the text, as well as the operation of the role of the senses in reading.