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A Christmas Carol review – Jermyn Street Theatre / Guildford Shakespeare Company

Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present

If you’ve spent too much of 2020 in Zoom meetings, here’s a delightful opportunity to have the irrepressible Brian Blessed booming out of your video conferencing software for a change.

Blessed plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in this inventively staged online production that uses technology to bring Dickens’ festive tale live to your laptop.

Adapted by Naylah Ahmed, this Christmas Carol stays pretty faithful to the original story but slips in topical references to the “sinister sickness” and the “rule of six” during a conversation about inviting Scrooge round for dinner.

As Scrooge, Jim Findley is suitably grouchy before his haunted night of time travel, and there’s more star casting in the form of Penelope Keith (yes, Penelope Keith), as a fabulously regal Ghost of Christmas Past.

Penelope Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past

Three more actors (Paula James, Robin Morrissey and Lucy Pearson) play all of the other roles alongside three young ensembles as the various children. 

With each actor boxed up in their individual screens, director Natasha Rickman has the daunting job of keeping it all flowing – something she does with aplomb. The interplay between the characters in the Cratchit household works particularly well.

There’s even some Zoom audience participation in the Fezziwig dance scene, which adds to the sense of fun.

As you’d expect, Brian Blessed’s larger-than-life performance steals the show – at one point it seems like he’s trying to clamber out of the screen. He also sings a beautiful We Three Kings. Meanwhile, Robin Morrissey is particularly good in the multiple roles of Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Mr Fezziwig, amongst others.

Beth Mann’s virtual backgrounds and visual effects add plenty of visual pop to the proceedings, and help make this one of the season’s more unusual and innovative offerings.

A Christmas Carol is online until 27 December

Towards Zero review – The Mill at Sonning

4 star review

Brian Blessed’s Agatha Christie productions have been an annual fixture at The Mill at Sonning since 2016, when I was lucky enough to interview him about his debut as a theatre director with The Hollow. “It’s a virginal experience!” he boomed at me back then across the Mill’s intimate auditorium.

This latest whodunnit Towards Zero, co-written with Gerald Verner, completes what Blessed calls his “quartet of Agatha Christie plays”. Visitors to his previous productions will recognise some returning cast members, including his wife Hildegard Neil and daughter Rosalind Blessed, as well as George Telfer, here playing Superintendent Battle.

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Hildegard Neil and Rob Heanley in Towards Zero (photo: Andreas Lambis)

The story takes place in the drawing room of wealthy Lady Tressilian’s clifftop home in Cornwall where an annual gathering includes Thomas Royde (Patrick Myles), back from Malaya and carrying a set of golf clubs (wonder what they might be used for?), family solicitor Matthew Treves (Noel White) and Lady T’s former ward Nevile Strange (Rob Heanley), who has turned up – rather awkwardly – with both his new wife Kay (Bethan Nash) and his ex Audrey (Kate Tydman).

Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere in the house is rather strained. Kay kicks things off by angrily ripping up a photo of Audrey. With talk of a large inheritance hanging in the air, it can only be a matter of time before someone gets murdered with a nine iron.

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Kay Strange (Bethan Nash) with her friend Ted Latimer (Duncan Wilkins) Photo by Andreas Lambis

While Brian Blessed himself doesn’t appear on stage, his distinctive voice opens the play reading the shipping forcecast on the wireless.

Neil’s Lady Tressilian is a joy, especially the way she delivers lines like: “Her mother was notorious all over the Riviera.” I also loved the simmering tension between Nash’s tempestuous Kay, and Tydman’s glacial Audrey.

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Matthew Treves (Noel White) and Superintendent Battle (George Telfer) in Towards Zero (photo: Andreas Lambis)

Although they don’t appear until later, Telfer’s Superintendent Battle and Chris Pybus’s Inspector Leach make a likeable crime-busting duo.

There are, of course, twists galore. The excellent cast, combined with Dinah England’s splendid period set, make this a thoroughly entertaining two hours.

No zeroes here, but a solid four stars.

Towards Zero is at The Mill at Sonning until 28 September