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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol: On the Air resonates because of its classic tale

With countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol since it was first written in 1843, the question this holiday season is, do we need another? The answer, at least for the staged radio play currently playing at Pacific Theatre, remains a qualified yes. For even after nearly 200 years, this story of redemption can still pack an emotional wallop.

Attempting to repeat the success of the similarly staged It’s a Wonderful Life Radio Show last year, Pacific Theatre has invited radio-play maven Peter Church to write a comparable treatment to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. As with the last year’s show, A Christmas Carol is presented as a live reading of the classic Dickens story under the guise of a 1940s radio broadcast, complete with commercial breaks and live Foley effects.

Despite being wrapped inside a live radio broadcast though, Church all but ignores the radio actors who play the characters in A Christmas Carol. Instead, he spends the bulk of the energy on simply telling Dickens’ story. This is both a blessing and a curse, for while this entire ensemble are top-notch storytellers, and Church has faithfully adapted Dickens’ novella, there is an odd disconnect. By ignoring the radio play actors as their own characters, Church creates a gap between cast and audience that is difficult to bridge.

Peter Church plays double-duty in A Christmas Carol: On The Air as both playwright and actor. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Peter Church plays double-duty in A Christmas Carol: On The Air as both playwright and actor. Photo by Damon Calderwood.

To be fair, in his recent interview the playwright does state that any sort of secondary story about the radio actors is not the point. Instead, it is more akin to being part of a studio audience. While Church has achieved that stated goal, there is something missing.

Since Church demands that this well-worn story must largely reside within our imaginations, there is a further disconnect created in Sarah Rodger’s direction. Ironically perhaps, there is so much business at times, plus music and sound effects that are often too loud for the small space, it all becomes a distraction. While closing one’s eyes and simply listening to the story might be an option, that very possibility would make A Christmas Carol: On the Air a theatrical oxymoron.

Although it never fully draws us in, the production is nonetheless buoyed by a talented cast. Chris Lam plays triple-duty here as a cast member, musician and Foley artist with skill in all three areas. The rest of the ensemble – Peter Church, Matthew Simmons, Diana Squires, Paul Griggs, Kirsty Provan, and Julia Siedlanowska – are also top notch. Simmons as Bob Cratchit is particularly good here as he captures the character’s spirit in finding the good in anyone, and Paul Griggs finds Scrooge’s transformation that is at the heart of this story.

Amy McDougall provides 1940s appropriate costumes with a few embellishments to underscore the Dickens story, but it is her set design with painted walls that disappear into the nothing that gives a wonderful visual hint to a time gone by.

Despite the distance created by performing A Christmas Carol as a staged radio play, Dickens’ story still resonates. Is it any wonder that so many continue to tinker with it?

A Christmas Carol: On The Air by Peter Church. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 West 12th Ave, Vancouver) until January 2. Visit for tickets and information.

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