What the Dickens?

The only thing A Christmas Carol was missing was giant puppets. The Wonderheads have fixed that with their show at The Belfry.

What the Dickens? - YAM Magazine Holiday Issue 2023

By David Lennam

If you’re in search of entertainment this festive season, there are the go-to staples: The Nutcracker, It’s A Wonderful Life, Handel’s Messiah, and all those dreadful pantomimes. But one above them stands alone: A Christmas Carol, from the man who invented Christmas.

Charles Dickens’s most famous work, his mid-19th-century novella featuring Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and three famous ghosts, has been adapted as a live performance a zillion times. It’s been played as political commentary, satire, horror, parody, as opera and ballet, even porn. There are movies from The Muppets and Bill Murray and Dr. Seuss and Disney.  

There’s Alastair Sim, George C. Scott and, may it be forgotten, impersonator Rich Little (although his Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchit is pure ’70s gold). Even The Belfry Theatre has a history of variety, including an improvised comedy (remember Tiny Tim’s allergy to wool?) and artistic director Michael Shamata’s sumptuous classic rendition.

Now Victoria’s full-face-mask physical theatre company, Wonderheads, gives us a homegrown Carol that’s close to what might be called live-action animation.

Wonderheads co-founder Kate Braidwood explains their take is masks and puppets and movement … but no dialogue. Dickens without the Dickens, or at least without the words of Dickens. And if it seems blasphemous to stage his masterpiece minus the famous “Bah! Humbug!” or “God bless us, every one!” the Wonderheads will argue that the work does and should live without the knowledge of either how the plot unfolds or the dialogue invigorating it.

“Our hope,” says Braidwood, “is that it lives on its own and works on its own if you don’t know the story. But if you do know the story there’s some delight in seeing how we’ve interpreted it.”

The Wonderheads version (often hailed as magical) has been a hit since debuting in 2019 and Braidwood attributes that to the unique way they present it.

“It’s a Christmas story, but it is a ghost story. There’s a lot of magical elements that really appealed to us,” she says. 

Her co-founding partner Andrew Phoenix agrees. The material really fits their thematic style, which probably means they embrace the darkness of the tale.

“And wait till you see our Marley,” Phoenix says of Scrooge’s one-time business partner turned ghost. “No one’s ever seen a Marley the way we’re doing it. It’s a bit of a showstopper when Marley shows up. People that know puppets tell us they’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Wonderheads had previous December runs of A Christmas Carol at the McPherson Playhouse and successfully toured up Island. But familiarity hasn’t dulled its appeal. The Belfry sold 200 tickets in the first 24 hours they went on sale and is betting on a sellout of the 26 performances.

Even if you’ve seen it before, expect a bigger, more extravagant Carol this time. More lighting, more stop-motion projections and a soundtrack from the Oakland, Calif., band The Singer and The Songwriter (who will play a live set before each show).

A Wonderheads Christmas Carol runs at The Belfry Theatre December 2 to 23. Info and tickets at belfry.bc.ca.