'Cratchit' review — a complicated retelling of 'A Christmas Carol' at Park Theatre
The Christmas Carol industry remains a thriving one, and Dickens’s self-described “ghost story of Christmas” has certainly experienced many and varied appropriations since the novella was published in 1843. Even so, it’s hard not to feel that writer-director Alexander Knott only muddies the water with Cratchit, a worthy expansion of a script, December, that Knott premiered online during lockdown late in 2020; that version was filmed at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Knott’s artistic home, with Ryan Hutton in the defining role. (Hutton remains on board as associate director this time round.)
And so here it is again, retitled and live at the Park Theatre and with the ever-likable John Dagleish in the role of Bob Cratchit, the underpaid clerk to the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. This same character is of course father to the crippled Tiny Tim, who often supersedes his father when this study in emotional generosity gets retold. (Dagleish, an Olivier Award-winner for his performance in the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon, played Cratchit in 2017 in the Old Vic’s joyous take on Dickens’s narrative, which has become a seasonal must.)
All the more reason, then, to lament the feeling, in these quarters anyway, that this fine actor has to fight against the material when he should by rights be accommodating himself to it. In essence a one-man show, notwithstanding assists here and there from Freya Sharp as Martha Cratchit (Bob’s oldest child) among several roles, Cratchit wants to extend the often baleful perspective of the 19th-century source material into the here and now – yes, there’s a “great plague” reference – but the result is a wearing psychobiography and occasional political broadside that needs seriously streamlining as theatre: Dagleish is kept so busy changing voices, and altering moods, that we as often as not lose the thread, and any cumulative impact gives way instead to relief once his restless journey is concluded. A show touted prior to arrival as having no interval turned out, indeed, to have one and would be preferable smoothed out and trimmed and played straight through.
The result is not so much a “silent night” (that carol figures amidst James Demaine and Samuel Heron’s rich soundscape) as a garrulous one that time-travels this way and that, leading Bob into a pulsating modern-day Soho: “Can’t you hear it?” he is asked, as if who couldn’t? Along the way, Dagleish gets to play Scrooge as well, in effect doubling as lord and master, before arriving at an epiphany that feels superimposed as opposed to the organically realised character transformation charted in Dickens.
Ghosts can’t help but appear here, too, and a rather overeager and manic Sharp hoves into view albeit briefly as Tiny Tim. Reference is made to the “many children” of Ignorance and Want, as seems fair enough in a time – namely, our own – in which those two Dickensian figures have a soul-cleaving reality. Events unfold on a sparsely furnished set by Emily Bestow whose wooden planks look as if they are about to buckle at any moment, and I’m very happy always to gain an alternate perspective on something so time-honoured, especially when fuelled by the genuine passion that courses through Dagleish’s performance here. But Knott might benefit from a further outside eye to take this upended chronicle further and sharpen what remains opaque. There’s a class act on the very topic of class in embryo here, and all involved have a full year now to get to work before the spectre of theatre future – a vision to which we surely all adhere – potentially finds Cratchit in the seasonal fold once more.
Photo credit: John Dagleish as Bob Cratchit in Cratchit (Photo by Charles Flint Photography)