Little Dickens: The Daisy Theatre Presents A Christmas Carol – genius, with limitations

Little Dickens. Schnitzel. Ronnie Burkett

If it were legal to adopt marionettes, I would apply for guardianship of Schnitzel.

Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett is a genius. He just is. Another blunt truth: Little Dickens isn’t his best show—at least it isn’t yet.

As the full title makes clear, Little Dickens: The Daisy Theatre Presents A Christmas Carol is yet another riff on Charles Dickens’s classic seasonal ghost story.

Burkett has been mounting evenings called The Daisy Theatre at The Cultch for four years now. The Daisy Theatre itself is kind of a rep company of marionettes: we see the same characters every winter. The idea behind this is that it allows audiences to spend more time with favourites and it lets Burkett put up an annual holiday entertainment without having to carve a whole new cast of characters every time.

In Little Dickens, the bitter old showgirl Esmé Massingill becomes Scrooge, the stout Prairie housewife, Edna Rural takes on the role of Christmas Present, and the irresistible fairy Schnitzel becomes Tiny Tim.

The marionettes are exquisite. I will never get tired of Esmé’s Sunset Boulevard-like grimace or the way the gold patterning on her flapper dress swirls around her drooping breasts. And Burkett’s skill as a puppet master is out of this world. He’s fully visible the entire time, but the marionettes come to life so completely that you never look at him. That’s because you can’t take your eyes off the way Esmé shrugs her shoulders, or the way she gestures with her arms and hands as she styles a torch song.

Mr. Burkett is also ridiculously charismatic. His shows are largely improvised, so it kind of feels like you’re tobogganing down a steep slope with him, and, as he comments on the proceedings—laughing as he discovers a new joke, making cracks about other adaptations—it’s fun to careen into the metatheatrical gullies.

But I said off the top of this review that Little Dickens isn’t Burkett’s best show, and you’re waiting for the negative part of this review, so here it comes.

On Tuesday night, when I saw Little Dickens in its premiere performance, Burkett and his stage manager Crystal Salverda were flying by the seat of their pants: Burkett told us that they hadn’t even had a full run-through. As it progresses, Little Dickens will get more sure-footed. It will also acquire more material as Burkett discovers it.

All of that said, in the show I saw, it felt to me like Burkett was constrained by Dickens’s busy narrative: he had to hit so many plot points that Little Dickens felt like more work than it should have. There was too much obligation in it and not enough room for invention.

Besides, who really wants to see another version of A Christmas Carol? I used to be a Christmas Carol fanatic: I virtually worshipped at the altar of the Alistair Sims movie—the black-and-white version, none of that colourized crap. I would weep in front of it every Christmas Eve. But even I am sick to the tits of the story. It’s way, way past time to declare a moratorium on adaptations.

I also think there’s a flaw with the concept of The Daisy Theatre. The first version was brilliant. Subsequent iterations have paled. The idea that Vancouver audiences are dying to reunite with the same characters year after year, only partially holds for me. I’m crazy about Esmé, for instance, but, this time out at least, I’m indifferent to Edna.

I will say, though, that I would watch Schnitzel all night long anywhere. The most innocent of Burkett’s characters, he is also the most compelling. But, in Little Dickens, Schnitzel doesn’t get nearly enough stage time. And, even though he really, really wanted to, the night I saw the show, he didn’t get to fly. Free Schnitzel, I say! Give him wings.

LITTLE DICKENS: THE DAISY THEATRE PRESENTS A CHRISTMAS CAROL By Ronnie Burkett. A Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes production presented by The Cultch. Performance Works on Tuesday, December 5. Continues until December 22.  

Get your tickets here.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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