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Soulpepper’s production of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Written by Charles Dickens

Adapted and directed by Michael Shamata

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Starring Joseph Ziegler

At Soulpepper in Toronto until Dec. 24 (soulpepper.ca)

★★★

Twist Your Dickens

Written by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort

Directed by Chris Earle

Starring Sean Cullen and Patrick McKenna

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At the Toronto Centre for the Arts in Toronto until Dec. 30 (secondcity.com)

★★★

On the brink of bankruptcy, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to make a quick buck – and, since it entered the public domain, theatre companies have been happy to use it for the same purpose. In Canada, you'll find stage adaptations bringing in family audiences and filling the coffers from Theatre Calgary to Eastern Front Theatre in Halifax this season.

In Toronto, Soulpepper long ago staked its claim on Dickens's most famous Christmas story (for he wrote many more). This is the ninth time Michael Shamata's adaptation has been mounted by the theatre company, the first being 15 years ago. This December, however, they have competition of a sort from the comedy chain Second City – which is, up at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, mounting the Canadian premiere of a loose – so loose it falls right off the bone – adaptation of A Christmas Carol by a pair of former writers for The Colbert Report named Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort.

Twist Your Dickens, as it is called, is anarchic and full of anachronisms, but comes with the seal of approval from the ghost of Dickens himself. "So much better than the history lesson at Soulpepper," a talking portrait of the author mounted above the stage remarks after intermission.

Them's fighting words. Though, revisiting A Christmas Carol at Soulpepper for the first time in almost a decade this week, I did, at first, find that the company's spare, in-the-round, authenticity-signalling production is starting to look a little bit cobwebby in its Victoriana.

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The British accents are all over the place, for instance – not just from new cast members such as Kawa Ada (stepping into the role of Scrooge's nephew, Fred), but from actors who have been with this production since 2001, such as John Jarvis (the ghost of Jacob Marley and all three Christmas spirits) and a nearly unintelligible Kevin Bundy (as Scrooge's festive former employer, Mr. Fezziwig). Why not just drop them altogether?

Early on in Shamata's production, thanks to the complex portrayal of Scrooge by Joseph Ziegler, I found myself, oddly, siding with the miser over his profligate nephew on the subject of the holidays. "What's Christmas for but spending money that you don't have?" Scrooge asks – and with consumer debt at record highs in Canada, I wondered if "keeping Christmas all the year," as Dickens's protagonist eventually decides to do, is not a looming disaster.

It's only through a misreading that you could see A Christmas Carol being used as a capitalist cash cow by not-for-profits as ironic, however. Scrooge, when he is still a villain, refuses to donate to charity to help the poor because he feels, almost like a socialist, that it's the government's duty to help the poor. "Are there no prisons?" he asks. "And the workhouses – are they still in operation?" Today, a Scrooge might ask: "Is there not welfare? Do we not have universal health care?"

I suppose this is why I've never particularly cared for the story – though Soulpepper's simple production did rather quickly win me over with its gentle spirit, I admit. Dickens knows how to pull on those heartstrings – and so do actors such as Ada and Bundy and Jordan Pettle (as Bob Cratchit) who all managed to get a tear or two out of me despite their goody-two-shoes dialogue (and the aforementioned accents). Of the kiddies in cast, I was particularly touched by Eponine Lee playing Scrooge's sister, Fan. I came out de-humbugged, dropping a Macdonald in the bucket for a local food bank on the way out.

That said, I had a much more fun time the next night at Twist Your Dickens – at least for the first hour.

Gwinn and Mort's script is second-rate parody, interspersed with sketches – a couple of Americans writing as if they're very cleverly inventing a form that Canadians and the British will recognize as pantomime. But, Sean Cullen and Patrick McKenna do what stars are supposed to do – and elevate the material that they are handed at every chance they get. Luckily, there are lots of chances for them to improvise in the framework.

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Cullen's Scrooge, in particular, had me in stitches from the self-conscious, self-satisfied way he spun out his first "Bah, humbug" onwards. He milks stupid little gags into delicious laugh lattes and has a wonderful time mocking different aspects of Jackie Chau's ugly set design. The comedian has particularly good rapport with McKenna – and I could have happily spent all night watching their Scrooge and Jacob Marley double-act riff on coal-worthy misdeeds written down by audience members on slips of paper before the show.

The tangential skits penned by Gwinn and Mort are less funny – though I did enjoy the group of orphans who invaded the stage to strike for better treatment from Dickens. ("I want my secret fortune now!" one shouted.)

I would have recommended this comedy wholeheartedly if I had left at intermission. The second act, unfortunately, gets too far off the Dickens track and is overwhelmed by so-so spoofs of Christmas TV specials. A Tiny Tim slumber party featuring other children with Victorian illnesses is in bad taste, but, also just bad.

Allison Price's drunk-girl schtick as the Ghost of Christmas Present definitely was a haunting of humour past, while Karen Parker's celebrity singer mangling carols is an even more played-out premise (at least until Cullen arrived in the middle of it to unhinge it). As with the rest of the seven-person cast, Price and Parker are funny in made-up moments – so I'd primarily blame the writing of Gwinn and Mort, which has a smug and smarmy flavour that does remind me of The Colbert Report – at its worst.

Cullen kept killing me often enough that Twist Your Dickens still ends up in the recommend column. A Christmas Carol is the gift that keeps on giving for live performers. As the Second City cast sings here: "It's not a very subtle allegory / The best part is it's royalty free."

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