A Christmas Carol

The Chickenshed Theatre

December 2018


By Charles Dickens
Adapted and Directed by Lou Stein
Lighting Design by Andrew Caddies


The future vigour of the stage depends on building a theatre-going habit among children. Obviously. Yet until last week another obvious fact had not struck me. Shows designed for young audiences may usher in not only new spectators but new ways of performing – and being. Youth theatre can be a model for all theatre.

Chickenshed, based in Southgate, north London, gives new meaning to the word “company”. Named after the reclaimed chicken shed in which it began in 1974, it’s a stage, an educational establishment, a vision and a fellowship. It supplies eye-and-mind-expanding productions by and for all ages. Such as A Christmas Carol.

Artistic director Lou Stein’s new version shrewdly shifts Dickens’s 1843 yarn to 1931. The anger is sharp; the generosity is never sugary. “Stand up for what is right” is the propelling mantra. A suffragette chorus is fierce: women have got the vote but not (hello!) equal pay. Trade unions are on the march. Dave Carey’s music is a terrific roll of jazz: a touch of Cab Calloway; a plangent tug of woodwind. William Fricker’s design floats bright scenes in front of fluid graphics and iron girders.

A cast of some 200 performers (15 professional actors and a youthful horde) surge across the stage, powerfully choreographed by Rachel Yates. Meticulously drilled but completely lacking in uniformity, this is a myriad-faced crowd, unlike any other on the London stage. You might deduce Chickenshed’s singular commitment to welcoming and training all applicants (there are no auditions) when you see one child in a wheelchair and another with Down’s syndrome. Other aspects of this policy are undetectable. Children who have been excluded from school perform alongside those with special educational needs – and the academically aspirant. You can’t guess at a background from the talent on display. Or know that a very particular quality – a mixture of reserve and radiance – is transmitted by a young man who has been diagnosed as autistic.

There is plenty of dash. There is also plenty of texture. It took me some time to realise one small reason why the whole thing may be lavishly, enjoyably spooky but also looks authentic. Usually only a brainbox wears specs on stage: here, even the silver-voiced darling of Scrooge’s youth doesn’t take off her glasses. Another departure is vital. Signers for the deaf are positioned not, as is customary, at the side of the stage: they are in the middle of it, often in character. Why should the hard-of-hearing have to look away from the action to learn what is being said? This is theatre that changes the idea not only of who is being seen but of who is looking.

Susannah Clapp. The Observer. Sun 2 Dec 2018