Review: A Christmas Carol

By Sean McQuaid

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Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has many virtues, among them its near-infinite adaptability. Everyone from the Muppets to the Teen Titans has done a version of this story in an ever-shifting array of media, genres, formats and styles.

Yet another take on the tale debuted in 2020, a theatrical adaptation commissioned by the UK’s Watermill Theatre and written by their playwright in residence, Danielle Pearson. Perfect for pandemic times, it’s a very compact Carol with just two actors performing all the parts. One actor spends most of the show playing Scrooge (with brief detours into other roles) while the other actor plays the Narrator and nearly everyone else.

This year the play flows from the Watermill to the Watermark, as PEI’s Watermark Theatre stages a revival starring Cameron MacDuffee as mostly-Scrooge and Leah Pritchard as the Narrator and company, directed by Rebecca Parent and stage managed by Samantha Bruce, with set/costume designs by Kelly Caseley and light/sound design by Pat Caron.

There’s a lot to like in Pearson’s script. Especially fine are the opening and closing speeches in which the candlelit narrator bookends the show with thoughtful musings about storytelling as a form of haunting, plus Dickensian exhortations to a humane sense of social responsibility.

The play’s commendable morality works less well in some of Pearson’s in-story insertions, where her added swipes at Scrooge’s diabolical capitalism often seem redundant (he was a bad man, yes, we get it). Especially weird is a scene where the reformed Scrooge gets a retroactive scolding from long-suffering lackey Bob Cratchit for past misdeeds. It feels oddly timed and repetitive coming amidst the story’s happy ending phase, and it just sounds wrong coming out of the preternaturally patient Bob’s mouth.

The script also never quite consistently finds its tonal groove, partly because its quick-changing two-person structure and Pearson’s occasional winking nods to same lend themselves to goofily broad comedy in a text that also tries intermittently to be a spooky ghost story, and to make serious moral and philosophical observations. The best Christmas Carol adaptations blend comedy, horror and social conscience into an integrated whole, but Pearson’s approach as staged by Parent feels more like at least two different plays stitched together, a serious drama intercut with a giddy holiday pantomime.

Ironically, MacDuffee calls to mind a structurally similar but less tonally dissonant show from 2015, Harbourfront Theatre’s delightful The 39 Steps, a stage adaptation of the old Buchan/Hitchcock spy thriller performed by a very small cast, including a hugely entertaining MacDuffee playing an oft-shifting array of supporting roles. Despite its deadly serious murder/espionage plot, the text and staging of that show were so consistently, broadly comedic that it all gelled together a bit more organically than the components of Parent’s Pearson production.

Great as he was as the bit-player-of-a-thousand-faces, MacDuffee is similarly deft in his occasional part-switching moments in A Christmas Carol; but he’s also a very solid lead as Scrooge, convincingly transitioning from flinty coldness to daffy warmth over the course of the show; and the glue holding it all together is Pritchard, who navigates over a dozen roles with split-second timing, unflagging energy and charm to spare. Whatever the production’s tonal issues, the MacDuffee-Pritchard duo ensure Watermark’s Carol is a sweet seasonal treat full of fun and feeling.

Sean McQuaidWatermark Theatre
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.