A Christmas Carol review – dark, dreamlike Dickens at Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle’s state apartments, at first sight, make a bizarre setting for Dickens’s socially conscious fable: the symbolic figures of Ignorance and Want seem out of place in the Waterloo Chamber bedecked with portraits of emperors, royals, archbishops and generals. But this production, a joint venture between the young company Watch Your Head and the Royal Collection Trust, works by treating the story as a form of living nightmare.

As you make your way to the apartments, via the castle’s darkened grounds, Dickens’s characters brush past you as if to establish a sense of dream. Once installed, you find yourself in an ornate state room confronting a raised, rectangular stage. A green-coated Jacob Marley, repeatedly emerging from the shadows, acts as narrator. The eight-strong cast use standard physical theatre techniques to evoke Scrooge’s fantasies, simulating the whirring mechanisms of a clock as he awaits the nocturnal ghosts. Spotlit figures even appear on the balconies at either end of the chamber. You can see why Queen Victoria enjoyed a “thrilling” performance of Macbeth in these rooms in 1853.

Michelle Hodgson as Mrs Cratchit and Edward Halsted in a state apartment at Windsor Castle. Photograph: Matt Humphrey

Even though the actors wear head-mics, the words sometimes get lost in the echoing acoustic. Scrooge’s conversion from crabby skinflint to beaming philanthropist, which involves the audience moving en masse to the adjacent St George’s Hall, also seems over-hasty: better, I’d have thought, to stay in the same room for Scrooge’s transformation and the final medley of carols and Christmas songs. If anything, it’s the dark side of Dickens’s fable that works best in this setting: although the actors sport giant-size turnips, onions and bananas to suggest the abundance of Christmas Present, I was more impressed by the way the billowing white sheets evoking snow turn into a shroud covering Scrooge’s imagined corpse.

Sasha McMurray’s production makes good use of the space and Edwin Ray’s choreography ensures the actors are in constant motion. Edward Halsted’s Scrooge has the lean and hungry look of a man in what Dickens calls “the haggard winter of his life”, John Kay Steel as Marley acts as our ghostly guide and Michelle Hodgson as Mrs Cratchit hints briefly at the rigours of raising a family on a pitiful weekly income. Even if this production can’t match the full-blown spectacle of the current Old Vic and RSC versions, it is physically inventive and you feel that Queen Victoria, who wanted Dickens to read A Christmas Carol to her in person, would have been amused.

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