The Morpeth Carol

Thu 8th – Sat 17th December 2011

reviews

Jessica Reid

at 22:24 on 8th Dec 2011

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“Leave or I’ll shoot you in the head!” is a phrase rarely associated with Father Christmas. However, from now on, that is exactly how I will picture him – black, beardless, in raggedy dark clothes, brooding and brandishing a gun. That is a strong visual image considering that all I actually saw were five people dressed in their normal clothes, sat behind a trestle table, reading from scripts into microphones. ‘The Morpeth Carol’ is an inversion of “The Night Before Christmas” and similar tales. It imagines what could have happened if something went wrong – like if Father Christmas crashed his sleigh and had to shoot his wounded reindeer, then needed a little boy’s assistance to flee back to the North Pole or wherever he came from. It was a brilliant script. It was inventive, witty and engaging. I was speechless when it ended (as were most of the audience – no one clapped or moved for several minutes) and could have enjoyed it for another hour.

Due to the radio-like setup, the emphasis was on the text and the voices. There was little to see – a few meaningful glances but mostly just five storytellers. For much of it I sat with closed eyes, the story washing over me and painting such vivid depictions. I could practically smell Father Christmas beating people up and I could imagine the boy Harry’s amazed expressions – for though he was vocally expressive, his face was impassive. Malcolm Hamilton played Young Harry and was incredible. In his high pitched Northern accent, he captured the perfect balance between being precocious and innocence and was both inquisitive and trusting. This contrasted hilariously with Father Christmas who was played by an aloof, cynical, gravelly voiced and exceptionally moody Joe Shire. As an example of the dialogue:

Young Harry: (Excited) Are you gonna climb down the chimney?

Father Christmas: (Imperious) That is a VERY foolish idea.

It was hysterical. While I really liked the evening, I am in two minds about whether it gained or lost out by being a purely aural experience. Yes, it allowed for the spectators’ imagination to run wild. But, a script as good as theirs would have translated well into physical theatre or even film. A lot happened and it would have been wonderful to see how such action could have been created.

‘The Morpeth Carol’ is storytelling for grownups. It is escapism and fun. It has made me more excited about Christmas than I have been in years. If you ever miss curling up in bed and being read a story, this is the show for you.

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Natasha Tabani

at 23:25 on 8th Dec 2011

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I descended the stairs at the Bristol Old Vic theatre down into a dark, cosy basement full of cheery, rosy-cheeked, woolly-jumpered theatre-goers. We are packed in, suspended on high seats overlooking a very minimal stage. The atmosphere is warm and snug, smelling pleasantly of mulled wine and spices – the perfect setup for a Christmassy play. A gentle murmur and the distant sound of icy winds fills the room. The stage itself is a small oblong covered in snow crystals. A row of people are sitting along a heavy wooden bench covered in sound equipment.

And that’s it; that’s all the visual stimulation there is. The entire play is told retrospectively through the voices and sounds created by the people on stage. The play is set on a housing estate in an unnamed British northern city, where one snowy eve its protagonist (nine year-old Harry) discovers a crashed sled with dying reindeer and smouldering Christmas presents among the wreckage. A dark figure emerges from the remains, and begins shooting the half-dead deer. Apparently, he is Santa. Brilliantly written and performed, The Morpeth Carol is a unique and twisted rendition of the traditional Christmas tale, with dark wit and fantasy perfectly complementing the gritty reality of a child ‘s upbringing in a bleak city. It captures the essence of a bedtime story, and takes us back to the magic of being read to when we were little.

The Morpeth Carol emerged out of initial thoughts for radio plays, and it definitely has the uncanny feel of watching a radio production. There is, however, an additional magic created with a live performance; you can watch the actor’s faces change into their characters when it’s their turn to speak. Everyone in the audience is connected, but also taken deep off into their own imagination. Some watch the actors, while others bow their heads and stare off into space or shut their eyes.

The story is woven purely through dialogue and sound effects, and so the interaction between the characters and the audience is crucial. The actors work perfectly together; their voices alone establish idiosyncratic and entirely believable characters. Particularly interesting is the dynamic between young Harry (Malcolm Hamilton) and the older Harry (Adam Peck) who is recollecting the story. There are comical disputes on stage between the two, as each has a slightly different version of the events.

All in all, this was a really quirky take on both the traditional Christmas-themed tale and storytelling in general. The play was written and performed well, and so there was no trouble imagining the story, and each setting and situation runs smoothly into the next. The subject matter is light hearted and fantastical, but the dialogue contains some deeper (though not at all preachy) moral undercurrents. I found myself laughing aloud at times, and at others being stunned into silence. The voices are animated and entirely believable, and the sound effects are perfectly timed to enhance the dialogue. I couldn’t envisage a way to do this kind of thing better, and that’s why I feel it’s worth five stars.

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