[Review:] A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Greenwich Theatre, London.
John O’Connor performs Charles Dickens’s original text of A Christmas Carol in a touring one-man show directed by Peter Craze. This review will consider the performance of the 23rd at the Greenwich Theatre.
This is not a particularly captivating performance, though it does certainly have its areas of interest. I shall start with these.
Though I might call these the bare minimum, this performance provides us with a solid basis for our own imaginations to run wild. This is captured not only through O’Connor’s multi-roling and various mimes and voices but through the use of lighting, sound and projected images. Mimed gestures and sound effects produced by O’Connor himself are most certainly evocative, providing not only a sense of transportation but a certain comedy and quirk as well — although, all of this remains truer of the middle-end of the play, as I shall detail later. The use of space is, for the most part, adequate, and the multi-function of certain set pieces makes for rather dynamic visuals, bringing life into the components of the stage and the stage itself. Projections in particular, though simple, echo location sufficiently and transport us from an otherwise static and unimaginative set.
Now, on to the not-so-positives. The set (designed by Tom Paris) consists of two large cases which are opened to reveal their innards as fake bookshelves, and a projection screen that sits between them. There is also a high table, a chair and the only prop, a book. The problem here is that the set, rigid and unmoving, provides the actor with little possibility for interaction, and hence, any interactions with the set that are to be had become repetitive, predictable and bland. If the actor/performer and the action presented are both captivating enough, this stasis does not necessarily become an issue. In this performance, however, an issue it most definitely was. Disappearing behind the set, simply to return in front of the projection screen — oftentimes with very little change in persona, physicality or character, or none whatsoever, even — the opening/closing and readings of the book and, most irritatingly, the disassembling and reassembling of the high table and its topper; all of these actions are too banal and bland to be effective, nay enjoyable, in their repetition, and this performance begins, erroneously, to rely on them.
My very first confusion with set, however, was actually the titling projected onto the screen at the overture and during the interval. The screen reads, ‘Written & Performed by Charles Dickens’. I am aware that Dickens may have performed this play himself, but the suggestion here is that we are to consider the current performer, O’Connor, as Dickens himself. There is nothing else beyond this title to concretise or evidence this, and it seems most unnecessary and incongruous with the text. O’Connor functions as nothing but a simple narrator; he is not caricaturising or even vaguely representing Dickens’s figure. So, why the subtitle reads, ‘Performed by Charles Dickens’ is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps I have missed a symbolism somewhere, or I have completely missed the point…I doubt it. All features must be deliberate, coherent and meaningful, especially at the very beginning of a performance.
When O’Connor finally enters, I find his performance to be most dissatisfying. Again, O’Connor seems to do the bare minimum to be classed as performing, his voices for different characters being far too indistinct and unchanging, and his physicality being, for the vast majority of his performance, negligible and weak. Even his very first action — which entails him entering the stage and present himself head-on to the audience before raising a hand but in a jerk of memory to turn and open the bookcases behind him — demonstrates both lack of energy and of originality. I find this beginning to be incredibly unfortunate, dilute and boring. This gesture is needless, just a weak and awkward display of incongruous metatheatre, and the bookcase is so uninspiring that the slight build-up permitted here is anticlimactic: “What could he have forgotten? What is he doing? What is in the case? …Oh.” Having O'Connor organise his set in this way adds nothing but outmoded comedy, and the bookcases should be open to start with.
In fact, to keep to the topic of O’Connor’s gestures, I find issues with many of these throughout the beginning–middle of the performance. For the most part, O’Connor performs with clasped hands, making short-lived and irregular gestures every now and then which supposedly intend to complement his lines. These are far too infrequent, however, and seem as though after-thoughts, unimpactful and ill-conceived. As alluded to before, when he is portraying varying characters, there is certainly a change in physicality and expression, yet this is very, very slight for most characters besides the character of Scrooge. For these reasons, I would have liked to see more dynamism in O’Connor’s performance, more vitality but, more importantly, a more embracive assumption of characters.
This does gradually change throughout the performance, and our actor does become more and more physical, gesticulative and active. This is almost what I would like to see throughout, yet energy is still very much lacking. Also, this shift/development in energy just means that the very former part of the performance seems simply disjointed from the latter, visually and emphatically imbalanced if placed side by side.
Another issue I have with O’Connor’s performance concerns a danger I associate closely with solo performances: oftentimes, when portraying multiple characters alone, a performer will look from side to side, and this incessant back-and-forth motion becomes utterly jarring and irritating to watch. This danger certainly bared itself in this performance. Usually, if this were a shorter production or a minor feature of this performance, I would recommend drawing attention to this peculiarity through a self-conscious melodrama or something of that calibre, but for this performance, I recommend performing deliberately and clearly straight out to the audience, head-on, rather than from side to side. This would have also limited the amount of time O’Connor spent with his back turned to front-row audience members, primarily Stage Right but, indeed, also Stage Left. Perhaps this would not have been so jarring, however, if characters were much better articulated through demeanour, physicality and voice as opposed to movement.
The text does allow for quite an amount of monotony if there is not enough variation in performance, and this needs to be better understood for this performance to be more successful. However, as I have mentioned, energy and momentum did improve as the play went on, but it was rather too late, for me. When O’Connor’s portrayal of female characters is wilder and louder than his portrayal of the Christmas Ghosts, it is clear that there is definitely a problem. There is certainly, in this way, a failure to understand which aspects of characters, which gestures and which tones to stress, caricaturise and draw attention to.
On this site, I frequently include, where appropriate, audience reactions or feedback/comments to reflect receptions of a performance that are beyond my personal experience. It is without bias, then, that I must admit here that the audience seemed to enjoy this performance a lot more than I did, demonstrating this with stillness, laughter and an utterly roaring applause. Whilst four audience members did noticeably leave during the interval, to not return, this number does not compare to the vast majority who seemed to bear a very positive response.