/ Review / Writing: Journalism

Master of his craft: A Christmas Carol at St. James Theatre (****)

Clive Francis performs his classic adaptation of A Christmas Carol himself at the St. James Theatre Studio with style and panache, although a slightly overzealous production does get in the way of his remarkable one-man performance.

Inspired by Dickens’ own dramatic readings of his novels, Clive Francis adapted A Christmas Carol into a one-man stage show twelve years ago, drawing from his own experiences as playing Scrooge with the RSC. The result is a lively retelling of the tale, bouncing pleasantly from scene to scene with Francis playing a host of the classic characters that make up this most popular of Christmas tales. In case there are any readers who haven’t yet encountered A Christmas Carol: we follow Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man, who is induced to change his ways by the ghost of his former partner and the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.

In many ways, this is simply an opportunity for Francis to show off the acting talents that have given him such an illustrious career, with stints at the National Theatre and the RSC: he leaps between characters adroitly, finding variance between figures as disparate as Scrooge and the kind-hearted Bob Cratchett without resorting to parody. Each character has a healthy dose of humanity, a rounded quality that allows them to exist truthfully despite all being performed by an older male performer; it really is an acting masterclass.

Add to that Francis’ excellent storytelling, as well as a well-paced and snappy adaptation, and the evening’s basic success is guaranteed. He moves the story along quickly and elegantly, with the whole performance taking little more than an hour without sacrificing any of the classic moments that have made Dickens’ tale so exceptionally popular.

It’s not a perfect theatrical experience, however – there are two elephants in the room. The first is that this production is a little overproduced – lighting, sound and music effects feel largely unnecessary, and in most cases are not of a high enough quality to match the performance. In particular, the sound effects, including some voice-overs, are very poor and crackly, yanking the audience out of Francis’ performance rather abruptly. The other issue is that Francis’ adaptation doesn’t do anything new with the classic story – this is very much the time-honoured Christmas Carol, with no frills or adornments, and while the classic is still a lovely story and a delight as told by Francis, I did find myself yearning for a twist in the narrative, something to lift the piece to greater heights, but knew there probably wouldn’t be one.

On some level, though, this may be an instance of the reviewer mirroring the piece – I do have a tendency to be a bit Scrooge-like around Christmas, especially when it comes to Christmas theatre shows, where invention seems to be avoided in favour of the financially dependable, tried and tested. Nonetheless, Francis got through to my flinty heart and gave it a resonating tap – the magic of Dickens’ story invigorated my waning Christmas spirit, and it’s Francis’ marvellous adaptation and performance that made that happy. So less of the “bah, humbug” – if you want some classic Christmas cheer, Francis is the person to give it to you.


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