A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.

Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.


BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!


WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
  • There are currently three productions on the boards right now, which deal with Charles Dickens’s great classic: this play, A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here, and the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy http://www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.