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Review: A Christmas Carol at Arnos Vale Cemetery

  • A Christmas Carol at Arnos Vale Cemetery by Red Rope Theatre

Forget Muppets, musicals and shiny big family productions, Red Rope Theatre’s A Christmas Carol at Arnos Vale Cemetery is one for the grown-ups.

The funereal tolling of the chapel bell guiding the audience into the Anglican Chapel, past a mass of graves and angels set the tone for the darkness to come.

Arnos Vale is no ordinary cemetery, it’s a Victorian Garden Cemetery. Acres of green woodland and twisting branches weave their way through ivy covered angels and skeletal monuments, connecting us to the whispered warnings of our real-life ancestors in the story.

Red Rope Theatre’s choice of literature to adapt each year for the South Bristol venue is always inspired. A Christmas Carol being no exception.

Matt Grinter’s adaptation features plenty of darkness, not just the spirits haunting Scrooge, but the darkness of the grim reality that a story published in 1843 hits home hard in 2022.

We might not have the Victorian workhouses yet. But families unable to heat their homes, unable to eat, disabled children not supported to thrive and people not earning enough to live on would feel like a political statement were it not pulled from Charles Dicken’s much-loved story. It made me think that there are plenty of Scrooges around today believing the same things about the same people. But would they recognise themselves in the story? Probably not.

But it’s not always a harrowing tale, it’s also full of warm characters and naturally funny laugh out loud moments, even in the darkest bits of the story and the jumpscares.

This is due to the expert acting of Martin Bonger as Scrooge, Dan Gaisford as Bob Cratchit and Rebecca Robson as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the later two whom play all the additional characters as well as puppeteer spirits.

I’ve never liked A Christmas Carol. All that barking of ‘humbug’ and insipid sentimentality of ‘God bless us, every one’ has been a lifelong annoyance at every Christmas. Thankfully, as well at Grinter’s gripping adaptation, Martin Bonger might utter the odd ‘humbug’ but he gives us a fully fleshed out and human Scrooge. Even with all his faults and negativity, the psychology of the character is fully considered, making this Scrooge and his development throughout events believable and not a caricature.

Scrooge is not nasty nor evil, he’s simply broken and damaged and uses a protective shield of sarcasm, meanness and wit. Despite believing the rhetoric of the undeserving poor, he finds his way back to family and love through the visitation of spirits frightening the life out of him throughout Christmas Eve.

We are lucky to have a wide variety of theatre created in Bristol that relies on quality acting, writing and storytelling. This is one of those productions. There’s no puff of smoke or automation to bring out the spirits, rather there’s clever direction, cloaked figures and sinister looking puppets who appear rather like a From Hell Greek Chorus.

The play is performed in traverse, which really works in this venue. The action plays right out in front of you. This makes scenes like the appearance of Jacob Marley one of the scariest I’ve seen on stage. ‘Be ready, they are coming…’ Gaisford booms from the darkness with the impressive gravitas of a Blumhouse trailer.

‘They’ are the spirits, who also dissolve through trick of the light and transition into characters from Scrooge’s past, playing out memories that for him occasionally spark joy but more often spark melancholy.

Clever sound design ahead of the arrival of the spirits representing an oncoming headache in Scrooge made me wonder whether the events played out for real or were they entirely in his head?

Key character Tiny Tim, is also created through gentle puppetry, managing to bypass my Tiny Tim Annoyance Trigger. One of the most emotional points of the show was the beautifully sad moment between Gaisford and Robson in the wake of Tim’s death in an alternate future.

The show runs in at 1.5 hours with no interval. It’s a lot of story to pack in but the action moves swiftly without skimping on plot nor action.

I’ve seen a few A Christmas Carols on stage now. This is definitely my favorite. Although it’s one of the most famous works of literature, often staged, filmed or portrayed in some form of performance or media, this adaptation felt fresh, engrossing and entertaining.

The ideal show to transition into Christmas theatre season.

A Christmas Carol is at Arnos Vale Cemetery until Friday 02 December.

For more information :

Martin Bonger
Dan Gaisford
Rebecca Robson

Director – Danann McAleer
Adaptation – Matt Grinter
Producer and Designer – Lois Grinter
Sound Designer – Oliver Thomas
Technician – Mark Riden
Marketing Imagery – Rhys Williams
Prop Maker – Sue De Gietelink