WHAT should lead off reasons to be cheerful for Malton’s inclusion in the Guardian’s guide to Twinkle Towns: Eight Great Places In The UK For A Festive Getaway but Charles Dickens’s 19th century connection with the North Yorkshire market town.
Dickens would visit his friend, lawyer Charles Smithson, whose Chancery Lane offices were the template for Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting room. He performed at Malton’s old theatre on his reading tours too, and Smithson’s widow received an 1844 signed copy of Dickens’s novel on Smithson’s untimely death at 39.
A plaque in Chancery Lane is all that remains of the now closed Scrooge and Marley Counting House/Dickens Museum, but characters based on Malton residents live on in assorted Dickens novels.
The Malton Dickensian Festival, Miriam Margolyes et al, celebrated Dickens’s books, and this winter Malton company Be Amazing Arts is mounting its third season of immersive promenade performances of A Christmas Carol, as highlighted in that Guardian feature on December 2 too.
Roxanna Klimaszewska, once of York company Six Lips Theatre, now creative director of Be Amazing Arts, has freshened up her adaptation, as she did last year, working in tandem with producer James Aconley once more.
Dropping into CharlesHutchPress’s email basket at 7.01am yesterday morning was a letter to “my dearest most valued reader” from the desk of Charles Dickens.
He wrote of his “great anticipation” of presenting a personal reading of his most recently published works: a felicitous visit that would serve as a festive event to “satisfy your hunger for a literary feast (or platter)”.
It would be his last reading of the season, he wrote, “as I endeavour to direct my attention to my next creation”. “Tonight, expect theatricals, as only an author who frequents the theatre as much as I do, can offer,” he promised.
And so a full house – as will be the case for the rest of the run – gathered at Kemps Books, arriving early to avoid Dickens’s threat that “latecomers will be treated with disdain and hostility”.
It should be recorded that the welcome, from bookshop to The Cook’s Place, could not have been more civil. There to meet the night’s promenaders was Quinn Richards, resuming his role as Charles Dickens, narrator and guide, striking up a conversation with Jack Downey’s ever-enthusiastic Charles Smithson.
Rather than the expected reading from Martin Chuzzlewit, Richards’ red-suited Dickens finds himself compelled to introduce the story, theme and characters of his new Christmas ghost story”. “Another ghost story?”, questioned Smithson.
Ah, but this one is A Christmas Carol, a story whose ghostly chill unfolds as if for the first time before our very eyes, countered by the reviving warmth of mulled wine (non-alcoholic, dear readers) part way through perambulations around the Market Place.
In the manner of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Richards will shape-shift between two distinct characters, but without reaching for the mind-altering medication, of course.
His Dickens is upright, loquacious, gregarious company, as he leads the way from shop to street to assorted empty premises. He even stops the two charity collectors (Beth Wright and Daisy Conlan) mid-sentence to re-write, improve, their words in an amusing interjection typical of Klimaszewska’s love of detail in the storytelling.
Later, Dickens will explain why he made the Ghost of Christmas Past a child (played by Team B’s blue-lit Ada Kirk last night in a role shared with Team A’s India Duffy).
Richards’ Scrooge is pinched of facial disposition, mannerism and vocal inflection, his demeanour stooped, his mien bleak midwinter bitter, sending away carol singers gathered outside Kemps.
Downey, meanwhile, is kept busy as Smithson; long-suffering but never-complaining office clerk Bob Cratchit; party host Fezziwig and the chain-clad spectre of former business Jacob Marley, dead these past seven years.
Marley is introduced in Klimaszewska’s adaptation as the face in the door knocker of what used to be the Green Man Inn. Once inside, the promenaders line the walls in the cold blue light as the chains rattle to herald the arrival of Downey’s Marley.
Children, selected from auditions but many associated already with Be Amazing Arts’ site-specific shows, accompany Marley’s words of foreboding with ghostly voices, then crawl across the floor on their knees in veils. Such haunting imagery will linger long in the memory.
Children are vital to this production, whether popping up in street cameos, serving drinks, or playing Cratchit’s children as the audience nibbles away at a platter of pies and cheese on a stick and sips a soupcon of soup at The Cook’s Place cookery school in Market Street.
Charlotte Wood, a familiar face from the York theatre circuit, makes her mark too, bursting into life in the welcome at Kemps, then delivering her stern Ghost of Christmas Present and feisty Mrs Cratchit.
From an empty shop to an opened upstairs window, Be Amazing Arts uses the street furniture of Malton to maximum impact, not least outside St Michael’s Church, where Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s gravestones of the imminent future are lit up: hazard warning lights, you could say.
All the while, the hooded, towering Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come hovers, disturbingly deathly and deadly silent, as the tick-tock of time signifies the rising urgency of Scrooge’s race against time to change from dark dyspepsia to enlightened benefactor by Christmas Day morning.
Klimaszewska rightly draws attention to Dickens’s symbolic children by the names of Ignorance and Want, resonating anew in our age of social ills, strikers’ dissent but shameful indifference from the suits, rising destitution and fathomless wealth, life-threatening health service waiting lists and cost-of-living despair.
The ending, as Dickens takes over once more from Scrooge at the Cratchits’ Christmas table, elicits a call for compassion and social responsibility: a sobering conclusion to a night of bracing, haunting, uplifting yet chilling theatre, at once moving and forever on the move, mince pie final boost et al.
Be Amazing Arts in A Christmas Carol, Malton Market Place, December 21 and 23, 7pm; December 24, 5pm; all sold out. Box office to check last-minute ticket availability: 01653 917271 or beamazingarts.co.uk.
Cast list for the night attended by CharlesHutchPress
Quinn Richards: Charles Dickens/Ebenezer Scrooge
Jack Downey: Smithson/Bob Cratchit/Jacob Marley/Fezziwig
Charlotte Wood: Mrs Cratchit/Ghost of Christmas Present
Noah Ashton: Fred/Young Scrooge
Annie Dunbar: Belle
Jess Middlewood: Belle’s Sister/Clara (role shared with Kathryn Thompson)
Dom Walker, Gentleman 2/Pawn Broker/Peter Cratchit
Beth Wright, Charity Collector 1; Daisy Conlan, Charity Collector 2
Amalie Waite: Woman 1/Belinda Cratchit/Gentleman 1 (role shared with Emily Brooksby)
Kelly Appleby: Woman 2/Martha Cratchit/Wife
Ada Kirk: Ghost of Christmas Past (role shared with India Duffy)
Edward: Husband/Suit 3
Daisy May Davies, Matilda Grimmond and Celia Brass are sharing performances as Fanny/Belle’s Child/Want; Reuben Baines and Stan Richardson as Young Cratchit/Boy/Beggar/Carol Singer; Teddy Alexander and Jeremy Walker, Tiny Tim, and Isla Norry and Angelica O’Dwyer, Belle’s Child/Ignorance.