A Christmas Carol, Cinderella (Dundee), Beauty And The Beast

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Film City, Glasgow, CINDERELLA at Dundee Rep, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 8.12.11
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A Christmas Carol 3 stars ***
Cinderella 3 stars ***
Beauty And The Beast 3 stars ***

BAH, HUMBUG. The quest for a perfect Christmas show is always a tough one; that complex combination of cheekiness and comfort, old-fashioned sentiment and real originality, fairytale magic and rumbustious comedy, can be surprisingly elusive.

If there’s one slogan that should be painted in giant letters around every Christmas-show rehearsal room, though, it involves the words “It’s Not About You.” Faced with the task of creating theatre for Christmas, artists often become hopelessly self-conscious; embarrassed by the cliches, repelled by the damp-eyed sentimentality of it all. And in the effort to do something different, they almost forget the truth that at this time of year, it’s all about the story; and about the passing on of that story to generations of youngsters who may never have encountered it before, in live theatrical form.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s first-ever Christmas show is therefore a fascinating example of the 21st century seasonal show, celebrating both its huge potential, and its near-infinite capacity for shooting itself in the foot. Brilliantly designed and staged by adaptor-director Graham McLaren, this new 80-minute version of Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol is set in a small, square Victorian meeting-room at Film City, formerly Govan Town Hall; it plays to an audience of less than a hundred souls, piled onto rough tiers of seating around the room.

The space itself is a recreation of Scrooge’s dismal and cluttered office, where the old miser counts his money and bullies his wretched clerk, Bob Cratchit; lined with shelves stuffed with musty scrolls of paper, it’s a marvellously evocative space, to which we’re welcomed with whoops of festive glee by McLaren’s terrific five-strong cast.

If the setting offers a thrilling combination of stage-set and tourist-style “Scrooge experience”, though, the storytelling, once it starts, is often disappointing. The ghosts who visit Scrooge are represented by scary puppets, designed by Gavin Glover; but the brute fact is that the puppet-figures are often confusing to look at, and their voices are so deliberately distorted – in horror-movie style – that their words are largely inaudible. I would defy anyone not already familiar with the story to grasp the real meaning of the visit of Marley’s ghost, or the story of Scrooge’s past Christmases, from these distorted or sketchy representations. And since puppets are being used, it’s hard to excuse the reduction of the lovable Cratchit family to a pair of green-faced miseries with just one sinister-looking child.

The truth about McLaren’s version, though, is that it actually prefers the superficially sinister and spooky to the good-hearted moral energy and righteous anger that drives Dickens’s great story. Benny Young’s Scrooge is magnificent, a fine old skinflint with an ancient Kelvinside accent. But the representation of goodness in the story is weak, the final “God Bless Us Every One” delivered with a satirical sneer. And for all its brilliant invention, the NTS show finally transmits less of the great spirit of Dickens than the sentimental old touring version of Scrooge, seen in Glasgow last week; and tells his story with less clarity and conviction.

At Dundee Rep, meanwhile, James Brining has unearthed a version of Cinderella that bends so far backwards in its search for a new take on the story that it almost topples off the upper deck of its own set. In a witty but mind-blowing twist, Phil Porter’s version of this most familiar of fairytales – first seen in London in 2009 – is set aboard a battered old steamer that is being used as an old peoples’ home for retired magicians; true to a promise made to her dead mother, Cinderella toils in the below-decks kitchen, and scrambles up the companion-way to look after the old folks, hindered at every turn by her useless Dad’s new gold-digging Russian partner, and her two ghastly daughters.

James Brining’s production of this strange show barely puts a foot wrong, within its own terms. Kirsty Mackay and Kevin Lennon are delightful as Cinderella and her reluctant prince, the nine-strong cast are in fine form, and the show captures a haunting contemporary sense of the possible magic of life struggling against some fairly hideous economic realities.

Like the NTS’s Christmas Carol, though, this show blunders when it tries to evoke happiness and beauty; even at the final moment of romantic resolution, Cinders and the Prince are pushed from centre-stage by the media-conscious old Queen, worrying over the television coverage of the wedding. It’s all witty stuff, for us grown-ups. But is it fair to small kids, experiencing a theatrical Cinderella for the very first time? Of course not; it’s confusing, it’s a bit ugly, and it finally cares more about its own originlity than it does about the rhythm and meaning of a great story, which deserves to be told wholeheatedly, or not at all.

All of which makes it something of a relief to turn to the Royal Lyceum’s staging of Stuart Paterson’s great 1980’s version of Beauty And The Beast, a show with strong pantomime elements, that nonetheless retains a rigorous and moving respect for the essence of this mighty story. To say that Neil Murray’s production is a shade too polite is to understate the case. Murray largely fails to tap into the script’s huge popular-theatre energy, or its potential for rumbustious audience participation; a little genteel booing of Angela Clerkin’s elegant witch is about as rowdy as it gets.

What it has, though, is a fine, clear, eloquent focus on the story, beautifully played out by Ruth Milne as Beauty and Andrew Rothney as the Beast. Even if the tone needs a sharp injection of energy, the narrative architecture of this show is strong enough to keep audiences thoroughly absorbed and enthralled; and with the addition of a little more sparkle, rudeness and pace, this quiet Beauty And The Best could evolve into one of the richest Christmas treats of the season.

A Christmas Carol at Film City, Glasgow, Cinderella at Dundee Rep, and Beauty And The Beast at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, all until 31 December.

ENDS ENDS

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