Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Tues 21 - Sat 25 November 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tues 21 November (Press Night)

The musical incarnation of festive classic A Christmas Carol is a deceptively difficult and ambitious production for an amateur company to tackle, not least of all owing to Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Lynn Ahrens’ sweeping score, which affords very little in the way of musical downtime, a number of visualisation challenges such as the otherworldly ghostly spirits, and of course that old period bugbear.

It’s a challenge that Bilston Operatic have, for the most part, met admirably.

For the select, unread few who require a plot synopsis (shame on you!), the show follows one of Dickens all-time great characters - the miserly, cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge (Nicholas Sullivan), a man with as few feelings as he has logs on the fire, unsympathetic to all, and distanced from his last remaining family.

Oh, and he despises Christmas.

Cue a supernaturally-charged, emotionally reflective Christmas Eve, where four spirits - including the ghost of his former business associate, and only friend, Jacob Marley (Tim Jones) - set out to explore why Scrooge became so unfeeling, and attempt to set him on the path to redemption.

Questions naturally abound as to whether or not the source material necessitates a musical adaptation, but anyone with any sense knows that argument was quashed when the Jim Henson company produced the exquisite Muppet take on the tale back in the early 90s. Here, Menken and Ahrens opt for a less satirical and knowing spin, instead giving a more traditional, wholesome approach to the classic.

And whilst they may take a few listens to become familiar with, the majority of the numbers are actually rather lovely, with Bilston realising them confidently on-stage within the confines of an amateur piece. The two big show-stoppers, ‘Mr Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball’ and ‘Abundance and Charity’ are big, full-company set pieces, buoyed by characterful performances from Jacob Kohli, Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns, swirling, period-authentic costumes, and some quite literally toe-tapping choreography from Laura Canadine.

Yes, when Christmas Carol hits its pace, it’s a joyous, festive romp, with much of it carried on the back of lead Nicholas Sullivan’s suitably animated take on Scrooge. Whilst Sullivan and MD Ian Stephenson seem to have made compromises on some of the character’s big singing moments into more spoken pieces, Sullivan is a winning presence on the stage, and certainly projects his take on the character right out into every nook, cranny and recess of the auditorium. If his Scrooge may seem a little too jolly too early when exploring his past, it actually plays rather in keeping with the more heightened and rambunctious take on the story that the musical represents.

One crucial element Bilston get very right in this production are the three spirits of Christmas past, present and yet-to-be. Whilst understandably the realisation of these apparitions has to be left to makeup and costume design alone, the three actors cast in the roles really elevate these trappings. Lydia Tidmarsh as the kindly Ghost of Christmas Past gets the most stage-time, navigating Scrooge through childhood, early business success and lost loves, and proves herself a fine actress and singer. Imogen Hall has perhaps the most challenging role as an old hag who later reveals herself to be the enchanting Ghost of Christmas Future, carrying herself gracefully around the stage with a silent, balletic interpretation of the character that is a late highlight of the show.

Bilston veteran Tim Jones dominates proceedings early on with his booming, levitating Marley, floating over the stage and decreeing Scrooge’s fate in one of the show’s more fun numbers, ‘Link by Link’. Jones gives such an assured, charismatic turn, and is in such fine voice that it’s almost a shame when he comes down off his floating harness and is having to share the stage with a group of shambling ghostly cohorts.

But perhaps most impressive of all is Jacob Kohli, as the larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Present. Kohli carries the air of a real theatre star in the making, belting out a fantastic voice, imbuing his spirit with character and energy to spare, and leaving a real impression in the handful of scenes he has. It’s always exciting to see potential stage talent of tomorrow in amateur productions, and in Kohli, Bilston seem to have just that.

Occasionally, it does fall on the cast and company to carry the show where direction and technical issues seemed to wobble. The long orchestral segues in and out of numbers occasionally mean there’s a lot of music playing but a lot of nothing happening on stage - at one point in Scrooge’s bedroom it seemed a full minute or so passed with music playing to an empty stage, to the extent one questioned whether or not something had gone wrong. Similarly, the latter of stages of 'Link by Link' and parts of other numbers seemed to have little in the way of focus or direction, with a lot of ambling about on stage. Tighter direction may have smoothed these transitions out, and there were a few more mic issues than are normally forgivable for a smaller-scale production, but with it being opening night that will surely improve over the course of the week, and it feels a trifle pedantic and harsh to dwell on too abjectly.

What can’t be critiqued, though, is the show’s strong lighting and costume design. The former is a trifle more electric and dazzling than the period setting would suggest, but it helps elevate the more fantastical elements of the piece well, whilst also heightening the more West End / Broadway stylings of some of the bigger song and dance moments. And, as mentioned, Bilston have got the look of Dickensian London down well in their myriad of costumes, including distinctive and whimsical looks for the spirits themselves.

In all, anyone looking for a light, fun, early Christmas treat will take a lot from this production of A Christmas Carol. Even for festive enthusiasts and musical regulars, the music is initially somewhat forgettable, but you can easily remedy that by going and grabbing the Kelsey Grammer DVD to become better acquainted. For such a challenging and ambitious show to tackle, Bilston Operatic deserve a lot of credit for getting so much right. Yes, there are technical wobbles here and there, and you’re always going to get a varying degree of ability from amateur companies, but that’s why it’s important to remember that everyone on stage is there voluntarily, and doing so for the fun, love and friendship of it all.

And, really, what could be truer to the spirit of Christmas than that?

RATING - We do not provide star ratings for local productions.

Tickets: 01902 429 212  / Official Website: click