Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva adapted from her novel. Developed with and Directed by Braden Abraham. Produced by Seattle Rep. Scenic Design by Scott Bradley. Costume Design by Catherine Meacham Hunt. Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi. Sound Design and Original Music by Bray Poor. Movement Direction by Alice Gosti. With Ryan Vincent Anderson, Julie Briskman, Cheyenne Casebier, Miguel Castellano, Basil Harris, Terin Cho Jesty, Izzy Richter, Mikayla Sanchez, MJ Sieber, Brandon J. Simmons, Adam Standley, Jonas Winburn, R. Hamilton Wright. Onstage at Seattle Rep from November 25 through December 23, 2022. Tickets at: https://www.seattlerep.org/
No ambiguity with that header!
No, I didn’t care for “Mr. Dickens and His Carol”, the world premiere new play that just opened at the Seattle Rep. It seems like the Rep would desperately love to have a new Christmas show of their very own they could dust off every year for beloved patrons to embrace and enjoy as part of their seasonal show going traditions along with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker or ACT’s actual production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or even Dina Martina’s Christmas Show but….
I don’t see that happening with this new play. It was long, dreary, depressing, repetitive and convoluted. The script was an illogical mess and the direction was unfocused and pedestrian. The production is blessed with a ridiculously talented cast of mostly local actors that we’ve seen many times in much better productions (including ACT’s annual Christmas Carol; many of these actors have appeared in that production over the years). It also has gorgeous period costumes from Catherine Meachum Hunt.
It’s also 2 and a half hours long with an intermission. A very LONG 2 and a half hours. Tediously long.
It’s not a particularly original premise for a show to start with…trying to answer a question that no one really needs answered: how did Dickens create “A Christmas Carol”? It’s a question already covered by a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Les Standiford which was in turn adapted into a not particularly successful film of the same name in 2017 starring Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame. Writer Samantha Silva also turned the idea into her novel, “Mr. Dickens and His Carol” which also came out in 2017 which was very loosely based on some of the real events but also fictionalized much of the story as well. Seattle Rep’s Artistic Director Braden Abraham developed this play with Silva who adapted her own novel into a script.
And, the script is the main problem here and it’s probably another example of why writers shouldn’t adapt their material from one medium into another…or, at least not without the help of another experienced writer. The story opens in 1843 with Dickens very pleased with his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit but less pleased to be told by his publishers that the book is his first flop. It’s selling poorly and as Dickens now has a large family to support including a foolish spendthrift father as well as numerous charities, it’s putting a damper on his lifestyle as well as his mood. His publishers goad him into writing a quick Christmas book to make some money but Dickens resists…the result is, the hour and fifteen minues of the first act consists of various people telling Dickens he is broke and insisting he write the Christmas book and Dickens brooding and resisting and acting like a jerk. This is repeated over and over and over again with such dull repetition that by the end of the first act, you long for merciful release.
Or, at the very least, an overpriced intermission cocktail.
It doesn’t help matters that the Dickens this production has created is…well, rather a dick. He’s whiny and petulant and a real asshole. And since he’s onstage in every scene, you start to get sick of this whiny, petulant asshole after awhile. I’m not going to blame the actor playing the role; Adam Standley is a terrific actor who has given many wonderful performances on area stages but here he’s been given a character that it’s hard to care about for 2 and a half hours. And, that’s because of how they’ve written the role. In real life, Dickens was a complicated fellow (which included shameful treatment of his wife) but also a very likeable one. We don’t really see that here…Dickens is mostly just a dick in this play.
It’s also such a waste of so many great actors…this show really has an all-star cast here including veteran Seattle actor R. Hamilton Wright (who has played Scrooge many times at ACT) who is delightful as John Dickens, the messy dad of Charles. The best scenes in “Mr. Dickens and His Carol” involve the real life complicated father-son relationship the two men had. I think “problematic dad relationships” tend to be a huge cliché in modern storytelling but at least the dysfunctional relationship here is one based on truth.
There’s also terrific moments from the divine Sunam Ellis as Catherine Dickens, so earthy yet a bit tart, who isn’t given enough to do in this story. And, hilarious supporting turns from seasoned actors playing several ensemble roles including typically funny work from Julie Beckman as head maid and a former Dickens’ flame, and Basil Harris as a variety of bumbling characters including one named Bumble, and MJ Sieber deliciously chewing some scenery as a foppish publisher/a foppish rival writer/a foppish famous actor. Brandon Simmons, Miguel Castellano, and Ryan Vincent Anderson, the only out of town actor in the cast, are all great in a number of ensemble roles.
And, there’s a superb quartet of child/youth actors in this show who are all just superb with Jonas Winburn as the elder Dickens son and Izzy Richter as the younger son plus the Tiny Tim inspiration getting the most to do but with additional fine work from Mikayla Sanchez (elder Dickens daughter) and Terin Cho Jesty as the younger. These youth actors were an integral part of the ensemble.
Finally, there’s the wonderful local actress Cheyenne Casebier playing…what exactly? I guess she’s a mysterious female muse of Dickens and while Ms Casebier is always a welcome presence in any production, her role here is ridiculous and ill-defined. I just saw the play and I’m not really sure why this character is in it and really what her ultimate fate was…it was all rather thrown away like the creators decided “ooops! the show is long so let’s wrap it up!” The character made no sense but it was just indicative of this production’s problems. Lazy dull plotting and sloppy direction which over relied on the use of scenic elements like an onstage revolve to help propel the story. And, despite the intent to create a sense of movement within the story and the play, it just all seemed jumbled and incoherent, a bunch of characters going in circles repeating themselves over and over like Fox News talking heads talking endlessly about Hunter Biden.
Despite this dream cast of actors, I can’t recommend seeing “Mr. Dickens and his Carol”….it’s just too much of a dreary slog. If you love Dickens and his actual story, there are other options to enjoy that tale. And, not just at ACT for their annual production of A Christmas Carol. You can just stay home and find the Mr. Magoo version on YouTube.
If you don’t cry at Tiny Tim’s plea for “razzleberry dressing”, you’re heartless.