I think the term ‘like stepping back in time’ is overused, especially when describing anything vaguely not from the modern world. However, for A Christmas Carol, read by Pip Utton as Charles Dickens, it seems wholly appropriate. It is a play not set in our time, nor specifically the Victorian era. Rather, it seems to take place outside of time, getting at the very essence of Christmas. From the simple stage set-up of minimal Victorian furniture, but with every available surface covered in candles, the atmosphere of the night promised to be intimate, nostalgic and simple. It is rare nowadays to go to the theatre to hear a live reading, especially of a book so well known and beloved as A Christmas Carol. But then again, it is a rare to see a play performed in candlelight, and it is rare to spend an evening with Charles Dickens’s ghost.
From the moment Charles Dickens, played by Pip Utton – the driving force behind this ambitious one-man performance – stands up from his wingback chair and invites us to spend evening with him, you feel entered into a community. Utton has created and starred in over nine one-man productions. He regularly performs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has won several awards for his thought-provoking and engaging performances. A Christmas Carol is no exception, and Utton creates an intimate presence where the audience and performer are brought together by a common story. Utton’s power as an orator is unquestionable, and his ability to evoke emotion and establish setting is definitely the appeal of attending such a performance. You fully believe him to be Dickens, and to give a human face to this iconic story breathes new life into the words on the page. While the comedic exaggeration of certain characters’ voices takes you out of the emersion slightly, it is never enough to make you lose interest. His reading of Scrooge is particularly noteworthy, performed with sympathy and understanding, showcasing the full range of the character’s emotional development and redemption.
The interwoven history of Dickens’s relationship to Exeter, specifically his performance of A Christmas Carol in 1858 at the Exeter Royal Public Rooms, is never overwhelming or forced. Rather, the details frame Utton’s reading, not as a forced imitation, but a natural progression and appreciation. It is obvious Utton is passionate about the figure he is portraying and this shines in his most candid moments. Likewise, the spontaneity of improvisation, mixed with the scripted elements, gives less of a sense of a performance but rather an embodiment of Dickens. Utton’s presence exudes warmth, aided in part by the soft candlelight that frames the podium from which he speaks. It is impossible not to feel a sense of nostalgia, and of going back to being read Christmas stories as a child. You are aware of the passing of time only by the slowly dripping candlewax as the candles melt. The inclusion of complimentary mince pies and mulled wine by the Northcott Theatre adds another dimensions of comfort to this cheerful experience.
But despite the night being grounded in a timeless nostalgia, Utton is able to bring out the most modern themes of the text. The importance of charity, empathy, and understanding are still strikingly relevant today. Scrooge’s speech that the poor do not require aid since “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses”, is grounded in the belief of the deservedness of those in disadvantaged positions, sentiment echoed across certain media platforms today. The overall message of working to produce goodness in the world is presented as overwhelmingly genuine and sincere. It is true that by looking to the past illuminations our present can be seen, and lessons still relevant today resound throughout the performance.
As Christmas draws near and the anticipated end of term has finally arrived, A Christmas Carol is the perfect way to escape the shopping crowds and the incessant Christmas playlists, and appreciate an understated and relaxed view of Christmas. It is perfectly simple and effective, and if you wish to see the spirit of Christmas, stripped of all its extraneous adornment, I encourage you to seek out this performance. It is a truly ‘comfy and cosy’ experience.
– Molly Thatcher
Featured image source: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/a-christmas-carol-2/