The Reading Between the Lines theatre group is performing Anna Wheatley’s version of A Christmas Carol at Katesgrove’s South Street Arts Centre throughout December. Charles Dickens’ classic novel about a diligent entrepreneur driven to emotional collapse by the health problems of his employee’s children now includes some blindingly good puppetry, several terrific song-and-dance numbers, and a lot more comedy.
By the time the audience arrives, the office party has already started on-stage, complete with paper hats, forced bonhomie and off-key karaoke singing. The audience take the role of fellow employees and are addressed by the hatchet-faced boss Evelyn (played with a grim joylessness by Jordan Whyte). “It’s yes to enjoyment, and no to a healthy relationship with reality,” she declares as the party starts. I like her; she’s sensible.
The office comprises the over-enthusiastic and bubbly Heidi (Emma Denly), the barely competent graduate trainee Crystal (Angelina Chudi) and Alan (Mark Middleton), the boring and somewhat awkward salaryman. Between the four of them, they play all roles in the performance, including operating the puppets and moving scenery.
HR policies are flung gaily from the window as the staff start their hammy and self-conscious amateur interpretation of Dickens, channelling shades of Round the Horne and Acorn Antiques as they miss cues or argue with one another about how to act crowd scenes with only four people. There is real drama scattered amongst the silliness; the ghost of Christmas future is an alarming apparition, and Bob Cratchit’s mourning of Tiny Tim is unexpectedly moving.
Of course, there is nothing amateur about the performance at all. The puppetry is astonishingly imaginative, and the use of office equipment – overhead projectors, whiteboards, filing cabinets and computer screens – as part of Scrooge’s spirit-induced hallucinations is inspired.
Emma Denly is a joy to watch as Heidi playing Scrooge’s louche and jocular nephew Fred. Mark Middleton, as Alan, plays the halfpint boy from whom Scrooge demands a turkey with such comic panache that the audience roared with laughter. Jordan Whyte is the transformative centre of both the Dickens and the framing stories as Evelyn the joyless boss, who unwillingly plays the equally joyless Scrooge. Honestly, I don’t know how they kept track of who they were playing when.
Grouchy old Evelyn gets a bit frisky with the increasingly uncomfortable Alan by the end. “She’s been altered by the power of art and collaboration” says Heidi portentously, looking meaningfully at the audience. Actors; they’re all barking bad, you know.
This production is an absolute hoot for both adults and children. There is some strobing of lights and mildly scary puppets (which didn’t seem to bother the children in the audience), and the theatre gets awfully hot. Anybody sitting in the front row or by an aisle may find themselves part of a dance number!
‘A Christmas Carol’ trailer (c) RBL via Youtube.
A Christmas Carol runs at the South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU until Sunday 30 December. The performance lasts about two hours and includes an interval. Tickets can be bought online or by phoning the box office on 0118 960 6060.