Atmospheric and atypical: it’s “A Christmas Carol” at Campbell House Museum

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Top: Mike Hogan, Tiffany Martin, Christopher Fowler, Christopher Lucas, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardel. Middle: John Fray, William Matthews, Thomas Gough, Jim Armstrong. Bottom: Margo MacDonald, Tamara Freeman, Chloe Bradt, Makenna Beatty, Alex Dallas; photo: Graham Isador

At this time of year, do you find yourself trying to choose among the perennial feast of A Christmas Carol productions? Several high-quality local versions have become annual Christmas traditions. Into this crowded-seeming space has arrived a new entrant: a site-specific interpretation of Charles Dickens’ timeless classic by The Three Ships Collective, supported by Soup Can Theatre and currently playing to (literally) packed houses at the Campbell House Museum.

It is a most unusual experience – and it is excellent.

The production is of uniformly high quality, and the impact of its intimate setting is a revelation. The historic Campbell House was built for Upper Canada Chief Justice Sir William Campbell and his wife Hannah in 1822. In fact, the Campbell family was living here when Dickens’ novella was published 175 years ago. The house is decorated according to nineteenth-century Christmas traditions, and the scenes of the play are set in rooms throughout the house. The actors’ period costumes are simple, the props are few, and the staging is technically straightforward. This leaves the focus on plot, characterization and theme, which are all atmospherically amplified by the house itself. Since the furnishings are true to their era, you feel as if you are inside the Victorian world that the characters inhabit. And you can almost feel the spirits of the Campbells themselves augmenting what Dickens subtitled “a Ghost Story of Christmas”.  

The production is directed with an assured vision by Sarah Thorpe, who elicits a uniformly strong ensemble performance from her outstanding cast: Mike Hogan, Tiffany Martin, Christopher Fowler, Christopher Lucas, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardel, John Fray, William Matthews, Jim Armstrong, Margo MacDonald, Tamara Freeman, Chloe Bradt, Makenna Beatty, Alex Dallas, and Thomas Gough as a marvelously cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge.

The casting is diverse, a subtle yet critical way to make this Victorian story relatable to contemporary Toronto audiences. And Justin Haigh’s adaptation of Dickens’ 1943 novella is purposeful and compact. Though just 90 minutes long, the iconic and impactful parts of the story remain, bridged by clever, efficient transitions from one room – and one spirit – to the next. Each scene feels rich and detailed. And collectively, they bring home the universal themes that made the story an instant hit, and have kept it an enduring classic: the importance of compassion and generosity, and the idea that it is never too late look inside and change for the better. Of note is the innovative and effective use made of Christopher Fowler’s intense Jacob Marley. Not only does he set the plot in motion by explaining to Scrooge what is to happen; he remains as an intense witness to Scrooge’s trials, and a spectral guide who silently summons the audience from room to room, before a final clever acknowledgement concludes his expanded tale.

Thomas Gough (Ebenezer Scrooge), Christopher Fowler (Jacob Marley); photo by Graham Isador

Another appreciated aspect of this production is its use of music. The play begins in the basement of the house, with a Christmas carol played plaintively on solo violin. The carol becomes recognizable as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” . . . yet the main feature of Pratik Gandhi’s arrangement is its discordance, emblematic of Scrooge’s character, which is about to be revealed in his first scene with William Matthews’ earnest Bob Cratchit. During the remaining scenes in various rooms over 3 floors of the house up until the final scene in the same basement room, the occasional music is a barometer for the health of the scene being depicted. Happily, at play’s end, the same violin tunefully accompanies the characters as one unified chorus singing a jaunty Christmas tune, written by Haigh and Gandhi.

This is a unique and truly wonderful production, but here are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re intrigued…. Campbell House Museum is a small venue, and the run is sold out. A small number of tickets may be available at the door, with information regarding ticket releases on Soup Can Theatre’s social media. For those fortunate enough to have tickets already, note that the show requires frequent changes of location and climbing of stairs. A few accessibility seats are available and can be reserved in advance by phone. Also, the play necessitates being in close proximity to fellow audience members due to the size of the rooms. Story-specific guides are on hand to ensure that audiences are positioned safely and strategically at all times, and know when to transition.

As they were in Dickens’ time, days are dark in Toronto just now . . . and not because of the weather or the time of year. Our political climate grows ever more divisive, driven by conflict between fiscal and moral imperatives. Focus has shifted from fostering financial stability and self-sufficiency to clawing back funding, undoing progressive initiatives, and making excuses. Three Ships Collective and Soup Can Theatre’s fine, uplifting and, frankly ingenious production of A Christmas Carol is a timely and important reminder that empathy, kindness and friendship are both necessary and timeless. Securing a ticket to this run may prove as difficult as squeezing a shilling out of an unreformed Scrooge’s clasp….but truly, it’s worth the attempt.

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Thomas Gough as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo by Graham Isador

What: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, with an original text by Justin Haigh

Performed by Thomas Gough, Jim Armstrong, Makenna Beatty, Chloe Bradt, Alex Dallas, Christopher Fowler, John Fray, Tamara Freeman, Mike Hogan, Christopher Lucas, Margo MacDonald, Tiffany Martin, William Matthews, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardell
Creative Team: Directed by Sarah Thorpe; Written by Justin Haigh; Musical Direction by Pratik Gandhi; Co-Produced by Sarah Thorpe, Justin Haigh and Wendel Wray; Stage Management by Kathleen Hemsworth; Designed by Chelsea Driver

Who: Audiences 10 years of age and older

When: 2 shows performed daily until Saturday, December 22, 2018; run time: approximately 90 minutes (no intermission)

Where: The Campbell House Museum, 160 Queen St West, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: ChristmasCarolTO.com

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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