Even Scrooge Wouldn’t Humbug Humbug!
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photos provided by Wandering Tiger Theatre Company
On a bitterly cold Friday night, my husband and I made our way to St Nicholas’ Priory, one of Exeter’s oldest buildings, to see Wandering Tiger’s production of Humbug!
We were welcomed into the holding area of the building where the smells of mulled spices and old books immediately filled our nostrils. Director Luke Jeffery greeted us and asked us to fill out a slip of paper detailing our favourite Christmas memory. All would be revealed, he said. After we had both filled in the slips, we were asked to tear them off and keep them somewhere safe. I began to ponder about how these would be put to use.
When all the guests were present, we were led upstairs by Mr Cratchit (Richard Feltham) and I was granted my first experience of the priory founded by William the Conqueror. You would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting setting for the classic Dickensian tale of ghosts, visions and Victorian Gothic than St Nicholas’ Priory. The sudden chill was immediately evident as we left the reception area, an unfortunate side effect of a building of this age, but one that contributed to the atmosphere of the performance. It truly felt like we were stepping back in time.
We were seated in Scrooge and Marley’s office, where Scrooge (Charlie Coldfield) was bent over his writing desk. Sound, or rather lack of it, was used to great effect in this first scene. The echoing tick of a pendulum clock was, at times, the only sound, creating a sense of claustrophobia and echoing the tension and fear that Scrooge’s character portrayed as he was visited by Marley’s ghost. At times, there was no dialogue for minutes at a time which created both tension and comedy. This may seem anachronistic, but was in fact one of the triumphs of the performance in the actors’s and director’s ability to deliver a chilling tale of ghosts, poverty and fate yet with light touches, witty one-liners and modern references.
It is worth mentioning that Wandering Tiger Theatre Company is made up of just three actors and director Luke, making it the smallest theatre company that I have seen perform. As with fellow theatre company Le Navet Bete, the size of the cast in no way affected the performance and instead allowed the actors to show their versatility in playing multiple roles.
The size of Wandering Tiger’s theatre company by no means detracted from their portrayal of the ghostly element of Dickens’s tale. The imagining of Marley’s spirit was another triumph of the group’s performance. Here Richard Feltham and third member of the trio, Benjamin Akira Tallamy, brought Marley to life to great effect. The website had warned that the performance may be disturbing for younger more sensitive viewers and the reason for this warning became evident in this scene. An exceedingly simple use of props was used to fantastic effect to create the threatening presence of Marley and the two actors used their voices as if they were instruments, creating different pitches to marry into one other-worldly voice.
When the Spirit of Christmas Past (Feltham) appeared, he began to talk about happy Christmas memories and I immediately remembered the slip in my pocket. Feeling apprehensive now, I wondered if we would be picked on to call out our memories. I won’t reveal Wandering Tiger’s secrets, and truly hope that if you are reading this you are booked into the show and will see for yourselves. I will say, however, that it brought both me and my husband to tears.
Following the journey down Christmas memory lane, the Spirit of Christmas Past invited us to journey with him into Scrooge’s past and so we rose and moved into the next room. Using St Nicholas’ Priory like an open set was an inspired idea; the performance felt so much more immersive as we explored the building. There were no clunky set changes, no aching legs from sitting too long. I imagine that the space must have held many challenges and limitations for Wandering Tiger, perhaps most notably the audience capacity, but I can honestly say I have experienced few performances that have had this sense of intimacy and presence.
Tallamy brought a fantastic sense of fun and cheekiness into his second role in the production, the Spirit of Christmas Present, as we journeyed again through the Priory into a banquet hall. The tables and chairs were littered with paper party hats, which, being a good audience, many of us put on without being asked to. There was a Captain Jack Sparrow likeness to Tallamy’s Christmas Present and his talents as a musician were utilised to great effect in this scene and later in the show. Both Tallamy and Feltham in their spirit roles also demonstrated well-timed use of audience interaction, a technique that, if done wrongly, can cause for cringe-worthy viewing. This, fortunately, was not the case and instead brought the viewers into the performance, effecting a sense of comradery as if we were part of the cast, rather than the audience.
As A Christmas Carol is one of the most well-told stories at Christmas, I did not expect to be surprised. I am thankful that I was. There were many elements that set this performance apart; the setting of St Nicholas’ Priory, the intimate nature of the small audience and small cast but I think the overwhelming factor was simplicity. Many larger, and perhaps more well-known theatre companies fall into a budget trap. They have the budget, therefore they spend it on pyrotechnics, lavish costumes and gimmicks. But none of those, for me, amount to good theatre. Wandering Tiger have it right; instead of being constrained by a budget they were freed by it. Rather than using money to find solutions, creativity needed to be deployed and, most of all, acting, comedy timing and audience interaction were placed at the forefront of the experience.
At the end of the performance, we dropped our change in the Exeter Food Bank collection buckets held by director Luke, a most-fitting choice in-line with the narrative we had just witnessed as well as our current economic climate. We stepped out into the exceedingly cold night and foamy snow was sprayed from a blower overhead. I felt utterly Christmassy and in great positive spirits, as if the cast had passed on the jubilance of the closing feast-scene. This feeling remains with me as I write this review and I am eagerly anticipating what this exciting theatre company will do next.