Following a critically-acclaimed sell-out run this time last year, there was never going to be much scope for criticising Simon Callow’s turn in this one-man take on Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol. It does exactly what it says on the tin: an impeccable acting talent paired with impeccable material can only equate to one thing – refined, high quality theatre; a performance actually worth paying to see.
Not that last night’s performance quite warrants the adjective ‘impeccable’: for the most part Simon’s grasp of Dickens’s rich, wonderful language is watertight – but with nobody to hide behind, on the odd occasion he does forget his lines the mistake feels spotlighted, garish and uncomfortable. And while I get the simplicity of the stagecraft is deliberate, so as not to distract from the central talent on which the entire show’s success or failure rests, 80 minutes straight through of one man on a near-bare stage with little other stimulation is slightly testing. Those with short attention spans (and by that I don’t just mean kids) aren’t really catered for here; neither are those looking for a raucous, festive night out: for you lot there are various other more appropriate options worth considering throughout the West End.
For Callow’s take on this iconic story is complex and serious: he’s not going solely for laughs, but rather invokes a vast spectrum of emotions. For example, in the supernatural scenes you really do worry for him. He abandons vanity while channelling an incredibly frail and terrified-looking Ebenezer; he really trembles, even letting his tongue hang from the side of his mouth when awoken from a stupor by a ghastly sound of chains dragging along a stone floor; it’s these little flashes of realism that make all the difference.
Ultimately how you’re going to feel about this show comes down to one thing: how do you feel about Simon Callow? He certainly puts a lot of himself into the characters: the narrator and Ebenezer especially, who at times could be the same character albeit at different times of the day. When he momentarily channels Tiny Tim or some charismatic Cockney bystander his true range as an actor is laid bare, but these moments are (quite necessarily) few and far between. Callow’s foremost guise is as narrator, or storyteller – not necessarily a voice you expect to become so well-acquainted with in a stage adaptation of a novel – and it’s here his power as an actor is at its most awe-inspiring: he’s a wise and authoritative presence; grave in the right places, dramatic in the right places, ironic in the right places. He makes you feel like a child again, reminding you of the true allegorical potency of the story (before the Muppets came along and put their hysterical stamp on it – this will at least ring true for readers of a certain generation…) and as such is utterly spellbinding.