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Tony Cownie and Isobel McArthur – A Tale of Two Christmas Carols

When Christmas Day was finally made a public holiday in Scotland in 1958, it opened the floodgates for what some might argue are the commercial excesses of today. As two very different stage versions of Charles Dickens’ celebrated novella, A Christmas Carol, prepare to open in Edinburgh and Pitlochry, however, whatever else might be going on in the world, the possibilities of personal transformation which Dickens’ story lays bare are there for the taking, on stage at least.

In Edinburgh, for his new adaptation staged at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Tony Cownie has even gone as far as relocating A Christmas Carol to Scotland’s capital, where Greyfriars Bobby makes a guest appearance. At Pitlochry Festival Theatre, meanwhile, Isobel McArthur’s new version puts music at the show’s centre, with the story being told by a group of carol singers who frame the action.

“I’m always moved by buskers on the street,” says McArthur, “especially at this time of year, when there’s such an amazing amount of people out there who believe in the power of sharing something beautiful, and who do it every day. There’s probably a gang of carol singers in every 80s Christmas film I’ve ever seen, and that connects with me on a personal level. A Christmas Carol is such a big story, but having the carollers there gives it an intimacy.”

For Cownie, setting his version of the story in Edinburgh is a logical extension of the book’s roots. According to legend, Charles Dickens came up with the idea for Scrooge when he was in Edinburgh, and saw a grave for an Ebeneezer Scroggie while walking through Canongate Kirk yard. Dickens is said to have misread the phrase ‘meal man’ as ‘mean man’, and so Scrooge was born. Whether this is true or not, having Scrooge’s shop opposite Greyfriars Kirk fits in with the mores of the time.

“Because Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Scotland, Scrooge had society as an ally,” Cownie points out, “so the people who did celebrate it did so as an act of defiance against the establishment. Christmas was an act of resistance. The good things about Christmas are what the people are trying to keep alive.”

Cownie hopes to emphasise this spirit by focusing more on the children in the story, and has moved it forward slightly in time in order to accommodate Greyfriars Bobby.

“There’s a whole relationship there between Tiny Tim and Greyfriars Bobby,” Cownie explains, “and that becomes really important top the story in terms of making it for children as much as grown-ups.

First published in 1843, what was originally called A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas has been reimagined numerous times since then, both on stage and screen. Three different stage versions of the book appeared within a few months of its publication, and by the end of 1844, eight different adaptations were vying for the public’s attention.

Dickens’ story has been adapted for film and television more than any of his books, with the earliest made in 1901. Famous Scrooges include Alastair Sim in 1951, Albert Finney in 1970 and Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992. The book was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Scots miser, Scrooge McDuck, while short-sighted cartoon clown Mr McGoo appeared as Scrooge in an animated version of the story in 1962.

In 1973, Marcel Marceau played Scrooge in a mime version, while Leslie Bricuse’s 1992 stage musical, which originally starred Anthony Newley as Scrooge, was based on the 1970 film which he also scored.

In Scotland of late, Andrew Panton oversaw Neil Duffield’s version at Dundee Rep in 2017, after having directed it previously at the Lyceum four years before, with Christopher Fairbank as Scrooge. Pitlochry Festival Theatre revived Bricuse’s Scrooge! The Musical as the theatre’s Christmas show in 2016, while at the Citizens Theatre, last year Dominic Hill directed Neil Bartlett’s version, which he had previously done in 2014.

For McArthur, while each versions has taken a different approach, A Christmas Carol remains “an amazingly secular Christmas story. Of course, various things have changed since it was originally written, but what hasn’t changed is money, and how it still divides us and tests our morality, especially at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is a story about morality before it’s a story about money, and it’s a topic that’s never beyond relevance.”

As true as this is, both Cownie and McArthur’s takes on Dickens’ story cuts to its human heart.

“It’s a family show,” McArthur says of PFT’s production, “and its main emphasis is joy, and hope for seemingly impossible things.”

As Cownie points out, “What A Christmas Carol is saying is that it’s never too late to change and see the error of your ways. It’s also pointing out how helping other people helps redeem you. Something like that can be life changing, and that’s something we all have hope for.”

McArthur agrees.

“Scrooge was old for his time given life expectancy then,” she says, “so to be in the final stages of life and to thoroughly transform through loving is utterly compelling.”

A Christmas Carol – November 21-December 23. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, November 28-January 4, 2020.

The Herald, November 16th 2019



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