The sheer variety and richness of the Scottish Christmas theatre scene is something of a marvel; and here are two glorious festive shows – not pantomimes, but much-loved stories for this time of year – that show off two of our finest companies at the height of their powers.
Theatre reviews: A Christmas Carol, Tramway *****
The Wizard Of Oz, Pitlochry Festival Theatre *****
So at the Tramway, temporary home of the Citizens’ Theatre Company, there’s a strange scratching sound in the air of Scrooge’s office, as the company winds up our jolly pre-show carol-singing session and begins to unveil a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, revived by public demand after its first outing in 2014, that is driven as much by Nikola Kodjabashia’s magnificent sound design – performed live by the actors on instruments and microphones around the stage – as by any other aspect of this terrific Dominic Hill production, which brings together music, design, lighting, puppetry and some superb ensemble acting in a world-class piece of Christmas entertainment.
It’s always marvellous and life-affirming, in these times, to rediscover the pinpoint moral accuracy and sheer passion with which Dickens skewers the attitudes of any age in which money is held to matter more than humanity; but here, with Benny Young acting up a storm as an irascible Scrooge, and a magnificnet Andy Clark as his poor clerk Bob Cratchit, gazing at his little sick son Tiny Tim – one of Rachael Cannning’s superb puppets – with an intensity of love that fairly rends the heart, the cold misery and cruelty of a creed that treats people as dispensable is exposed with such exhilarating clarity that the Glasgow audience seem set to storm the stage in agreement.
The singing is magnificent, the carols are heart-lifting, the sheer craftsmanship of the production astonishing, as it flows from scene to scene, ghost to ghost. And to see it all on the great thrust stage of Tramway 1, with the audience on three sides, is a bonus; in a show that celebrates community, solidarity and love, in a time when we could hardly need those values more.
And then it’s off on the yellow brick road to Pitlochry, where associate director Gemma Fairlie treats the audience to a delightful, spectacular and inventive version of The Wizard of Oz, full of wonderful dance, movement and aerial work (choreographer Rebecca Howell) and driven along by a flawless performance from musical director Dougie Flower and his fine ten-piece band. Like A Christmas Carol, The Wizard of Oz has plenty of contemporary resonances, not least in its take-down of a bombastic, autocratic leader who turns out to be nothing but a frightened man in a suit, and in its analysis of the qualities ordinary folks need – brains, heart, courage – in order genuinely to “take back control” of their lives.
In this gorgeous Christmas show, though, Fairlie lets Frank Baum’s book and Yip Harburg’s lyrics speak for themselves, as Rachel Flynn’s lovely Dorothy sets out with Toto – first an adorable real dog, then, in Oz, an equally adorable puppet – to conquer the wicked witch, and find her way home; and she’s surrounded by a 14-strong ensemble who fairly dazzle with the range of their singing, acting and movement skills, as well as by three teams of Perthshire youngsters who play various Munchkins with magnificent poise and flair.
Add some brilliantly effective design by Hannah Wolff, reaching its high point in a spectacular glowing-green ensemble version of The Merry Old Land of Oz that has the audience roaring its approval, and you have a musical production of real West End quality, and with added Perthshire warmth and heart, that seems set to give the theatre in the hills a Christmas season to remember. - JOYCE MCMILLAN
A Christmas Carol is at Tramway, Glasgow, until 6 January. The Wizard of Oz is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 23 December.