Review: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester

A Christmas Carol at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester. Photo credit: Evoke Pictures

A Christmas Carol at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester. Photo credit: Evoke Pictures - Credit: Archant

‘Deliciously, deliciously horrifying,’ was the verdict Katie Jarvis reached about the opening scene of this ‘shiver-inducing’ production, but how did the rest fare?

Want to be terrified out of your wits?

Then, listen! Listen as the dark seeps and swirls suffocatingly round you, enveloping like a shroud. Listen to that sound… What is it that you can hear? An insidious clanking as ghostly hands - manacled by unearthly chains - drag themselves along a splintering floor that once offered comfort but now proffers undreamed of horrors. Watch, eyes stretched preternaturally wide, as the witching hour - the dead of night - swirls ectoplasmically, tapping on that same floor to reveal - climbing through its solid boards - the unquiet spirit of Jacob Marley, howling his dire exhortations.

This scene, dear readers - this awful scene - is exactly what theatre should be. Spine-tingling. Shiver-inducing. Terror-inspiring. And the Barn Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol aced that scene. Deliciously, deliciously horrifying. Deep breath; settle down; heart-rate normal - let's backtrack a little.

I like the Barn. I really like the Barn. Everything I've seen so far - though I haven't seen everything - has been different in a good way; innovative without you thinking, "Blimey. Convention is so underrated".

So I was kind of expecting the Barn's Christmas production to be something turned on its head. I dunno. Psycho on Ice? Westboro Baptist Church, The Musical? Donald Goldilocks and the Three Amigos? (Look - I'm not an artistic director, am I.)

In fact, what the Barn did was pretty clever. Writer Alan Pollock took Dickens's traditional Christmas story and asked himself the question: Why was Ebenezer such a Scrooge? What could have happened to the young Nezer to make him a dysfunctional adult? Drugs? Dodgy prep school teachers? Parents with codependent traits?

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Then the Barn did something even brillianter. They invited the wonderful Patrick Ryecart to play Ebenezer himself. (He even lives in Oxfordshire so he's local!) But did it work?

Well. The production combines Ryecart's understated, mesmeric, almost Lear-like (at times) Scrooge with a vivid troupe of incredibly talented actor-singer-musicians. Sometimes - especially when they lent their voices to the beauty of traditional carols - this went well. But occasionally, it felt as if Scrooge had taken the wrong turn at the Stage Door and bafflingly found himself wandering into a full-swing version of Grease The Musical (it's Electrifyin'!). Noisy, vivacious, young, enthusiastic, yes - but also, dare I say, there were times when the direction was in danger of overwhelming the charm of this rightly loved story.

And then there was the denouement.

We got a valid backstory - absolutely we did. And yet this psychology-heavy script, for me, underplayed the key moment. For Ryecart seemed to change from humanity-hating curmudgeon - " debit and credit; credit and debit" - to gift-bearing delight in the blink of an eye. (At least, thank god, he had enough time (off stage) to visit all those Victorian shops that traditionally stay open on Christmas morning, buy a lot of suitable gifts for the Cratchits, wrap them, and still turn up in time for celebrations.)

There was excellence. The humour was fab - not sure how much there was for children in the audience; but the adults appreciated the current affairs witticisms - and the technology, costumes and set were superb.

"There's J!" Ian said, suddenly pointing out a fellow audience member's back-view. It was, indeed, J. (Cue Woody Allen joke about him not trusting us with the rest of his name.) What did J. think? Not that differently from the way I did. "Yes it was loud," he opined. "Particularly the younger troupe. One almost craved the subtle calm when the spotlight was on the older Ebenezer. He brought grace and old-school acting skills…" J. thought the talent - the singing, dancing, musicianship - amazing. J. hated the morris dancing ("I come from French Huguenot stock.") So, J. Overall?

"We are privileged to have troupes like this playing on our doorstep. Would I go back and watch it again? Probably not this year. But, if it was on again next year, I would reserve my seat right now and look forward to it all year which, I suppose is how traditions start."

Oh, and he also adored the scene with Marley and his chains.


The Barn Theatre is at 3 Beeches Rd, Cirencester GL7 1BN,; 01285 648255