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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Little Dickens: Daisy Theatre presents A Christmas Carol brims with imagination and wit

Ronnie Burkett is a master at manipulating puppets, props and people

Theatre-goers were welcomed to The Cultch on opening night of Little Dickens: Daisy Theatre presents A Christmas Carol with a warning the show would run between ninety minutes and two hours, with no intermission. We were also told drinks would only be allowed in the auditorium in plastic cups to avoid any clinking noise. “It had better be good,” muttered a disgruntled first-timer, as she poured her wine into a plastic tumbler.

It was more than good.  To borrow the vernacular consistently used throughout this marionette show, it was f…ing brilliant.

Some might deem the liberal use of the “F word” a flaw in an otherwise wonder-filled, faithful, if outrageous adaptation of Charles Dickens’s original text.  Yet the audience obviously enjoyed yelling “F… off!” irreverently at a Halloween character nudging her way into this Christmas show.  In contrast, they also enjoyed the “Jingle Bells” sing-along.

In this all-too-familiar Christmas tale, Burkett brings each Dickensian character to life with an imagination and wit approaching genius.

In this retelling of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes Esme Scrooge, a self-centred, gin-riddled diva, with Jacob Marley as one of her chorus girl cronies.  Nephew Fred is a tofurky-toting millennial musician begging a joke about the difference between a musician and a Canada Savings Bond that brings the house down.

There’s a downtrodden theatre manager, a Southern-drawling drama teacher, and a chinless British Major General.  But the coup de grâce is the Ghost-of-Christmas-Yet-to-Come, when Burkett’s brilliant expertise at involving the audience comes into its own.

There are extraneous cameos too.  Dolly the stripper highlights Burkett’s dexterity as he disrobes the puppet by degrees while she pumps, grinds and sings about Santa getting stuck in her chimney.  Edna the homemaker unravels the personal life of an unsuspecting ‘volunteer’ as he helps with the audience rendition of “Deck the Halls. Edna’s show-stopping Christmas tree outfit, complete with lights from the bobbing star on her head to the Naturalizer sandals on her feet, is wittily designed by Burkett and expertly built by Kim Crossley.

There’s even an appearance by the ‘Birthday Boy’ himself.

But it’s Schnitzel who steals the show, as Tiny Tim.  His foreshadowed death, sorely mourned by his father, and Esme Scrooge’s own predicted death, sourly mourned by no one, finally transforms her; though not before she delivers a venomous diatribe about her outfit being over-shadowed by that f…ing Christmas tree get-up.

No one could have guessed that Burkett was fighting a cold and congestion on opening night had he not mentioned it.  His broad vocal range and velvet resonance seamlessly transitioned in pitch and tone with each character.  Even when his transitions weren’t seamless, he had the audience onside and in stitches.

He also confessed to stumbling with his storyline, admitting having written “f… all” down from last year’s production.  Whenever he needed guidance to get back on track, his delightful exchanges with his stalwart stage manager/prompt Crystal Salverda further enhanced the fun-packed evening.  Always on the ball, Salverda was quick with cues and never once let him down; small wonder she’s also his production manager and artistic associate.

Indeed Burkett’s talent extends to choosing a crew that is obviously in sync with his overall vision.  The pre-recorded music, superbly arranged by John Alcorn, sounded as if the musicians were with him onstage.  That’s discounting Eric James Ball’s fantastic festive pit band operated by another audience ‘volunteer’.

Schnitzel brings the performance, lasting 105 glorious minutes in this instance, to a moving close as he delivers Burkett’s version of Dickens’s Christmas message, ending with the eternal line, “God bless us, every one!” And blessed we certainly were.

Little Dickens: The Daisy Theatre presents A Christmas Carol created by Ronnie Burkett, produced by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes and presented by The Cultch. On stage at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until December 22. Visit for tickets and information.

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