A Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale – a strange blend of panto and champagne feminism

Fan Scrooge (Sally Dexter). Pic. Nobby Clark

“I am a woman and I have lived a life men made for me…I am a woman and I will never change.” Directed by Stephanie Street and written by Piers Torday, Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale, now playing at Wilton’s Music Hall, in Wapping reimagines Dickens with panto and champagne feminism.

The original tale is gender-flipped; Ebenezer Scrooge (Joseph Hardy) dies young and it is Fan Scrooge (Sally Dexter) who becomes the greedy old miser. Instead of being the deceased Jacob Marley’s (Brendan Hooper) business partner, Fan was “his wife for too many years.”

There have been hundreds of productions of Dickens’ classic, so why take this new route? Torday said: “Whilst the tale has been retold for puppets and toys, and Scrooge performed by men young and old, the central role has remained resolutely masculine. We wondered what would happen when we re-examined this classic fairy tale from a woman’s perspective and re-imagined the complex central character?”

Want (Chiara Agor), Meagre (Yana Penrose), and Ignorance (Joseph Hardy). Pic. Nobby Clark

Natalie McKnight, President of The Dickens Society, told Eastlondonlines: “I love the idea of having Scrooge be a woman. Miserliness is certainly not bound by gender; women can become just as bitter and closed off as men, and for similar reasons.”

While the intention seems laudable and the first act is fresh and tongue-in-check, the second leaves one feeling like they’ve experienced a very bad acid trip and witnessed a car crash rendition of supposed feminism. 

The narrative is carried by Charles Dickens’s cat Meagre (Yana Penrose) and the sickly children Ignorance (Hardy) and Want (Chiara Agor). The children’s continued presence throughout the performance acts as a haunting spectre; despite Scrooge’s change of heart, poverty and homelessness still prevail. Their appearance is poignant considering recent figures showing these problems are still very present in 2019.

And for the most part Dexter embodies all the hardness, razor wit, and vulnerability traditionally associated with Scrooge. Dexter also cleverly makes the part her own with her no-nonsense attitude towards “fighting the patriarchy.”

Her character does not shy away from criticising women’s lack of agency in money, marriages, and position in the Victorian era. Throughout much of the play, Fan seems set on her quest to thrive in power and profit despite being trampled on her whole life by blockhead men.

Dexter delivers some of the first act’s best lines, from mocking Bob Cratchit (Harrison) about how Mrs Cratchit’s (Agor) day off on Christmas will still involve cooking, cleaning, childcare, and laundry while he relaxes. As well as beckoning to Jacob upon his entrance in chains: “I want a divorce.”

Fan Scrooge (Sally Dexter) Mr Bullaby (Brendan Hooper), and Bob Crachit (Edward Harrison). Pic. Nobby Clark

A special mention goes to Hooper who simultaneously plays the blithering Marley, a drunk priest, the happy-go-lucky Fezziwig, and a sarcastic turkey.

Like the original, Fan is visited by four phantoms on Christmas Eve, starting with her dead and sexist spouse Marley, who has recruited his fellow ghosts as a ploy to get rid of his chains. The ghost of Christmas Past (Ruth Ollman) is jovial and juxtaposes well with Scrooge’s harshness.

However, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Harrison) for some reason appears to be the tree character Grute from Guardians of the Galaxy and goes on about meditation, turmeric lattes, and living in the moment. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future (Agor and Ollman) is an utterly terrifying bedsheet who communicates through hisses.

At the point of the interval, you feel fairly comfortable with Scrooge being a bit of a female icon, but then act two comes crashing in and it is a cringe inducing experience. In a turn of events, that involves twenty-first century time travel, suddenly the play attempts to force in as many pop culture references as physically possible, from veganism, Trump, Amazon’s Alexa and social media’s expectations.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with peppering in relevant cultural references, but this feels like watching your drunk mum try to “get down with the kids.’ What makes this ending worse is that the feminist tone, which had been relatively successful, becomes like an unholy lovechild of a Ben Elton and a Carry On film. There is a weird, unwelcome, and irrelevant flash of Suffragette ribbon. Historical chronological inaccuracy aside, it comes across as jarring and reductive.

Although it’s refreshing to see a different take on the classic story, this production is far from a fairy tale. Despite clever stage design and an enthusiastic cast, the play peaks at the halfway point.

The show runs from now until January 4, you can buy tickets here.

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