Ghosts of Christmas Carols past: Belfry stages fresh take on Christmas classic

Sometimes I find that the older I get, the harder it is to feel festive at Christmas. Between exam season, financial stress, and family drama I can get to be a real Scrooge. So, I’ll admit I was feeling pretty bah-humbug! when it came time to pick up my tickets for the Belfry’s A Christmas Carol, but by the time I left, this Christmas classic had me whistling “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and craving roast goose like a regular Tiny Tim.

Staying true to the Charles Dickens novel’s mix of playfulness and cynicism, director/writer Michael Shamata’s vision swings like a church-bell from celebratory to dark and back again. Anyone who’s read Dickens will tell you his language is dense, but Shamata’s dialogue rings with warmth and wit. Some scenes are bleak and others positively radiate with festive cheer. Sometimes ghostly effects are melodramatic enough to be funny, and other times I found myself genuinely at the edge of my seat in suspense. The first act in particular made great use of silence and space to set the scene and build tension, balanced by comedic relief and even a high-spirited dance. If emotions were Christmas dinners, this play could serve you six courses.

There is a timelessness to the production that captures the character of Victorian England without drowning the audience in complicated language and crown-mouldings. I had a lot of fun watching Shamana play with John Ferguson’s sparse but elegant set, cleverly turning doorways into gravestones, making ghosts appear from nowhere, and even sending Scrooge and his ghostly guide soaring out a window. I can’t tell you how many versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve seen and read, but this staging is full of surprises and managed to make the familiar story reveal itself anew, scene by scene.

The true lifeblood of this show, though, is its performers. A charming ol’ Scrooge, Tom McBeath absolutely fills the whole theatre even when he’s alone onstage. And,  when he’s not, he is supported by a fantastic ensemble.  In particular, Brian Linds and Jan Wood stand out as an uproarious Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, and Gerry Mackay’s ghostly presence resounds like a grounding bass note under the entire show. The loveable cast of children also got more than a few “d’awwwww’s” from the audience on opening night.

All I will say is that after two hours of suspense, surprise, and laughter, I, like Scrooge, left the theatre transformed and — fashionable ambivalence forbid — in quite the Christmas spirit. If you’re looking for a classic Christmas story with a bit of something for everyone, A Christmas Carol might just be the stuffing in your arts and culture turkey this holiday season. God bless theatre patrons, every one!

A Christmas Carol runs at the Belfry Theatre at 1291 Gladstone Ave. until Wednesday, Dec. 23; tickets are available from the Belfry Box office at 250-385-6815 or belfry.bc.ca.

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