What the Dickens [by James Wenley]
You know the silly season must be upon us when you find yourself thinking: “for the love of baby Jesus, not another Christmas Carol adaptation”. Dickens’ morality tale has been trotted out so many times that you’d think they’d be no bah-humbing curmudgeons still left to heed the message. What is there left to say?
Nothing really, but this Christmas, push past any Carol fatigue and fill your heart with the joys of A Christmas Carol, Basement style. What other version has a mad-butcher, a time-travelling suffragette, a mutant corn, and an entire children’s choir?
In this “Suck my Dickens” edition, writers Nic Sampson and Barnaby Fredric, and director Sophie Roberts, have taken to the tale with a subversive kiwi-mocking glee. It’s the ideal showcase for The Basement’s annual Xmas show bonanza complete with a rotating Xmas pot-luck cast (will you get David Farrier as John Campbell? Michael Hurst as the Mad Butcher?) Here, Gareth Williams’ Ebenezer Scrooge heads that great Christmas rort: a Christmas hamper company. Christmas is a business to be exploited. His sole employee is overworked solo Mum Bobbi Cratchitt (Bree Peters), whose son Tiny Tim is afflicted with almost every ailment known to science including the most terminal of them all: hope. Each night Williams and Peters are joined by a different grouping of cast to help teach Scrooge his holiday lesson.
Sampson and Fredric riff off Dickens’ formula by plugging in very local references; so Jacob Marley becomes Sir Peter Leitch, the Ghost of Christmas Past is Kate Shepherd, the ghost of Christmas current (affairs) is John Campbell, and we also meet a young Helen Clark from her hippie days. The jokes here fall in largely familiar territory of parodying their public images (although Kate Shepherd, played my night by Rose Matafeo, is full of bizarre surprises) and part of the fun is how far the actors push it. On opening night Byron Coll’s Mad Butcher was positively insane, shaking his sausages like macarenas and making mates at interval. Fredric nailed Campbell’s persona if not his voice, and Kate Simmonds’ Helen was eerily good.
The show diverts into some wonderfully surreal material where you can’t quite be sure what is happening next, or even quite sure what is happening: a sentient corn from the future comes to foretell Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s fate, and, for no apparent reason, Chris Parker earlier emerges as a suitably androgynous and raving Tilda Swinton(why not?). There’s also material that is borderline bad taste: Tiny Tim, shaking, misshapen, and in a wheelchair, has a sharp cringe-factor, but Chelsea McEwan Miller plays him with such sweet resilience that the character becomes a much needed character to root for in contrast to Scrooge’s general ambivalence. A cameo from celebrity ghosts which includes Cory Monteith pushed the line of taste, nor was the accompanying humour all that clever. A cameo from the ghost of Patrick Swayze had a kinder sprit to it, so to speak, and some special audience involvement, re-enacting a scene from Ghost, was a great crowd-pleaser.
The best humour in this type of showis often unplanned, as the actors traverse the scenes with little rehearsal time, and delight in throwing comic curveballs to the leading man (Williams can’t resist the odd chuckle). The latter scene between Williams, and a giant corn (Jackie Van Beek in a bravura costume by designer Charlie Baptist) becomes a hilarious three-way between the actors and a rather too eager audience member.
There are songs too, composed by Joseph Moore, and a great excuse for Williams to show off his higher register. The children’s choir open the show and go home to bed straight afterwards, singing of the plight of decile 1 kids. Scrooge sings of looking forward to Christmas by himself. They are catchy, clever, and I would have gladly welcomed one or two more.
Simon Coleman’s ingenious set manages to give the impression of cobwebbed hoarded clutter of Scrooge’s home/business, as well as the impression of roomy audience space in The Basement, pushing the stage action to the edges of the room, allowing for both table seating and the normal rows of benches. Amber Molloy’s lighting design also makes virtue of this setting, nestling lights inside stacked chairs.
A Basement Christmas Carol gives a good kick up the bum of the silly season; put it on your Christmas list.
A Basement Christmas Carol plays until the 21st December. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Stephen Austin