It was as if all the doors of an advent calendar had been flung open at once. Last week, after the month of darkness, theatres rescheduled their openings, and scrambled over one another to pack everyone in – which is to say, arrange their diminished spectators so that the gaps between them felt like a healthy breath rather than the reminder of a threat. Excitement! Anxiety! And a sea change. Not only the spacing, not only the choreography, but the sound of the stalls has been altered. Instead of elbowing your way into the auditorium through a bar scrum, you process sedately in file, with ushers patrolling like genial sentries. People don’t shout; there is murmur not hubbub in the auditorium. For the time being, one of the small but significant mysteries of the theatre is not happening: gone is that minute just before the start of a play when suddenly, without instruction, the entire audience stops buzzing and falls silent.
What is performed has of course been altered by the exigencies of Covid. Safety favours short plays and, when not monologues, small casts: how long will it be before we have a production of King Lear in which the poor old chap has only one daughter? It is inspiriting that the much-missed Almeida theatre has reopened with a new work that fronts up to these difficulties and reaches for solidarity while talking of seclusion.
Writer Chris Bush has an impressive record in celebrating cohesion in tough times, as she did in her hymn to Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which has just won this year’s South Bank Sky Arts award for theatre. Director Rebecca Frecknall’s special gift is to illuminate obliquely. Together with a gifted six-strong cast, they have devised an evening that projects the jagged loneliness of lockdown – Nine Lessons and Carols is made up of fragments, scenes that don’t fit snugly together – but that also finds harmony.
Music composed and performed by Maimuna Memon winds its way through the evening; there is an ease among the actors, perhaps forged partly by the difficult circumstances of rehearsal (tested for Covid twice a week). Tom Scutt’s spare pale design, in which chopped logs back up against the Almeida’s brick walls, sometimes lit by a glow of warmth, suggests a wintry circle in which stories might be shared, and the first and last scene have a fairytale touch, hinging on the image of isolation as a thorn in the back. But the mood skitters – or, rather, shudders.
There is satire – an easy enough target but a true one – when the cast set themselves to come up with a suitably saccharine Christmas ad and settle on featuring a three-legged pet. There are familiar lockdown obsessions: making banana bread, getting a dog. There is a sombre argument between two members of a family about the wisdom of taking part in a BLM march – though some of the saddest words in this Covid chronicle are sung, not spoken. It is not an evening that skewers: it lingers in the mind like smoke.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of A Christmas Carol constantly reminds us of what we missed when the theatres went dark. How so much (it’s a Covid lesson) can be achieved without reaching for hi-tech wizardry. How a tiny change – of lighting or speed of movement – can make a giant shift of mood. How enjoyable and expanding it is to collude in the belief that someone is changing into someone else, especially when you can see how it is being done: this makes you wonder what “character” really is.
Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo share the narrative of Dickens’s cheery chiller. And also act it out. Russell Beale first describes Scrooge – seized up with frostiness – and then becomes him, shoulders dropping, moving so stiffly that you seem to hear a symphony of creaks from his corroded joints. Later, he frisks himself into the beaming roundness of a plump sister, who dimples over her shawl. Patsy Ferran, who seems made to pipe cleaner her way into a parade of clerks and damsels and droll creatures, wraps herself up in a muffler to be Bob Cratchit and then, announcing the arrival of a portly gentleman, stuffs the muffler into her jumper to stride on as that gent. Figueiredo is a baleful spirit, a tremendously good-hearted nephew and a chirpy boy on a bike who goes off to get the Christmas bird from Hassan the halal butcher.
It is a beguiling, skilful evening, but it’s a social distance away from hitting the hot spot. Some of the gusto – often resistible but essential for Dickens’s flavour – has been trimmed along with the cast. Until a glorious parade of Christmas sweaters at the end (Scrooge’s is decorated with fluffy snowballs), it has a touch too much good taste. Nevertheless, God bless them, every one – well, all three of them.
If Dickens were around now, he would surely be writing for the Big House, set up by the extraordinary Maggie Norris, who puts on plays with casts of socially excluded care leavers. The Ballad of Corona V, staged five times a night for a promenading audience who move in groups of six, is a ferocious take on the pandemic, written by David Watson. It features a cowboy virus, a bumbling PM, music by Jammz, a fizzing young cast and accomplished professional performances from Jermaine Freeman (a Big House graduate) and Eleanor Wyld. Norris has made wonderful use of the space, a former frame factory: there is a through-the-wardrobe feeling as you go into the yard off an Islington street – and, indeed, you are entering another chamber of the heart.
It is striking how closely theatres so far are sticking to the here and now, focusing on Christmas and on Covid. I am looking forward to being transported elsewhere, as I was to some extent by Hampstead theatre’s revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, first seen at this theatre 60 years ago. Alice Hamilton’s production is too flaccid at the beginning, with Alec Newman and Shane Zaza delivering their lines as if they were speaking the subtext, which threatens to spoil the shock of the final pay-off. Yet the skill of dialogue and plot, in which two blokes wait for a third, gripping me more than Waiting for Godot ever has, gradually exerts itself. Not least because of the brilliant device of the dumb waiter itself, the food lift that rattles up and down the building with its promise of sago and soup: abruptly bursting into noise, unpredictably pausing, like a Pinter character.
Star ratings (out of five)
Nine Lessons and Carols ★★★★
A Christmas Carol ★★★
The Ballad of Corona V ★★★
The Dumb Waiter ★★★
• Nine Lessons and Carols: Stories for a Long Winter is at the Almeida theatre, London, until 9 Jan
• A Christmas Carol is at the Bridge theatre, London, until 16 January 2021
• The Ballad of Corona V is at the Big House, London, until 19 December
• The Dumb Waiter is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 16 January 2021