Review: Joyous, celebratory, innovative VR Theatrical’s A Christmas Carol is enthralling storytelling musical theatre- a festive season treat

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, presented by VR Theatrical

When: November 30 to December 10, 2022 (Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30pm & Saturday matinees at 4pm.
Where: Theatre on the Bay
Tickets:  R180-R220

Starring: Ashley Dowds and Amber-Dawn Burnhams
Devised, adapted and directed by: Elizma Badenhorst
Music: Wessel Odendaal
Piano accompaniment: Dawid Boverhoff
Animation: Naret Loots
Lighting design: Francois van der Hoven.
Setting and props: Nadine Minnaar

VR Theatrical’s A Christmas Carol is joyous, celebratory and innovative. This intriguing adaption of A Christmas Carol is enthralling storytelling musical theatre. I was surprised and charmed by this production, which presents the much loved Christmas story by Charles Dickens- with intelligence and verve- framing the story for contemporary audiences. In the 1st half, Amber-Dawn Burnhams engages with the audience, from the persona of Mrs Penelope Fezziwig- a minor character from A Christmas Carol. Mrs Fezziwig tells us about the genesis of A Christmas Carol. Dickens, transcended his miserable childhood, slaving away age 12, to help his family, out of penury. By 25, he had become a journalist and a successful writer. By 1843, he had hit on relative hard times, through overspending and hubris.

Mindful of his poor background, Dickens always supported the less fortunate than him but what is conveyed by Mrs F is that he had lost the plot. Writing, the novella, A Christmas Carol (penned in six weeks), he was able to reconnect with his humanity and through the narrative he could spread the message of being kind, humble and supportive – emotionally and fiscally- of those in need. The novella was a huge success and has become a festive season pleaser on stage. This production, jingles warm and fuzzy bells but is also a nuanced and deeply considered adaption.

In the 1st half of this production, Mrs F, provides us with fascinating insight into Dickens and his journey –his redemption over his hubris and success. Interspersed with the story, the audience is treated to songs from Oliver– the musical and Christmas songs, with the glorious voice of Amber-Dawn Burnhams and Dawid Boverhoff at the piano. It is like: Charles Dickens the Concert. The stage is stripped back, with the beautiful voice of Burnhams and her fabulously animated storytelling through dialogueand song.

In the 2nd half, Ashley Dowds arrives on stage as the grouchy Scrooge- in his PJs and with his pillow. The story of Scrooge is played out.  Burnhams morphs into puppeteer as she manipulates puppets- androgynous as she shape shifts with the puppets and narration. I am used to seeing Dowds as a dashing figure and it is was revelation for me to see him climb deep into the persona of the old grouchy, grumpy Scrooge. There is a voice over by Christopher Dudgeon. I am not going tell you what he voices and narrates. It is a surprise and with the animated ghosts and other images. The landscape of Scrooge is vividly conjured up on stage. I found the 2nd half, a tad too long and too busy, visually. I could have done with less animation.

My few quibbles with 2nd half, aside, I loved the way the 1st half of this production sets the scene for the story of Scrooge. I loved the singing of carols at the end – with a contemporary vibe. Director Elizma Badenhorst’s astute concept and perceptive adaption, deconstructs and constructs Scrooge and his creator Charles Dickens. This is a fabulously entertaining production – the voice of Burnhams, physical theatre and antics by Dowds and the puppets.

However, different strokes for different folks. I have spoken to people who were expecting a traditional rendition of a Christmas Carol. They wanted more actors on stage, instead of puppets.  I understand that we have our different viewpoints. I stand by my rave of VR Theatricals’ A Christmas Carol. I was enchanted by the voice of Burnhams, the virtuosity of Ashley Dowds (I have not seen him in action like this), pared down set, piano, magical puppets. This production shifted my perception of Dickens and the trajectory of writing A Christmas Carol. In these dark days, in South Africa, with loadshedding and other issues of anxiety, worry and brokenness, it is brilliant to be uplifted by a night at the theatre. VR Theatrical’s A Christmas Carol is enthralling storytelling musical theatre- a festive season treat. It is joyous, celebratory and innovative.

Enchanting: Ashley Dowds, Amber-Dawn Burnhams and puppet in A Christmas Carol, staged by VR Theatrical.

✳ Featured image – Amber-Dawn Burnhams as Mrs Penelope Fezziwig- a minor character from A Christmas Carol.