Ronnie Burkett’s Little Dickens is a retelling of A Christmas Carol but with more bah-hum-buggery, fewer heartwarming lessons in morality, and a whole lot of excellent banter. The performers are marionettes, little puppet characters with strings, and it’s an adult-only affair. Either that’s enough to have you already booking your tickets (they’re going fast!) or you’d be better off spending the evening at home darning stockings, or whatever it is that comedy-scrooges do on long winter nights.
These puppets are cast members of The Daisy Theatre, which means that they perform regularly in different storylines. Ronnie Burkett is the puppet master of The Daisy. On opening night, he greeted the audience with a confession, “We haven’t even had a dress rehearsal yet.”
An improv puppet show? Yikes. Except Burkett knows his wooden cast so well he can plop them down in any storyline and produce hilarity. “This show could be thirty minutes long or three hours long,” Burkett beamed. “Either way you’re stuck.” The crowd loved this. Many already knew these oddly adorable characters and couldn’t wait to see them take the stage.
The show opened with a curvaceous marionette singing “Santa Got Stuck in My Chimney”. The marionette then began to strip, using wooden hands to clumsily un-Velcro its Christmas dress. Buckle-up— a puppet strip show is just the beginning.
Next, Esmé Massengill enters the stage, playing Scrooge. Once a famous Daisy theatre diva, Esmé has since seen her star fade and becomes a bitter, drunken mess. We find her pestering her belaboured assistant Cratchit to book her a stage to perform on, even a brunch performance would do. But it’s Christmas, Cratchit whimpered, everyone is with family. “What about the homosexuals?” Esmé demanded, “I’m beloved by the homosexuals.”
Esmé bah-hum-bugs her way through a couple of Holiday visitors including members of the Royal Thespian Society seeking donations for less fortunate members of their acting profession. Esmé is unsympathetic, “Is there not Dinner theatre? Are there not school tour groups? …Then there is work enough.” Her face frozen in a permanent sneer, it is only a matter of time before Esmé must face the three spirits. Four if you count vodka.
The plot barely got going before it began to unravel delightfully. Burkett enlisted the help of the audience. One volunteer turned a little crank that made a puppet band play, while Burkett selected a young man named Julio from the audience to be his shirtless “Jingle Bell Boy.” The result was a musical number that was both embarrassing and hilarious, as Burkett drooled over his new assistant and puppets danced jerkily.
It turns out that A Christmas Carol is the perfect narrative for inspired improvisation. We all know the story of mean ol’ Scrooge, so it doesn’t matter if a detail gets missed or if the whole narrative gets dropped for an audience sing-along led by Edna Roerhl, a sweet-hearted Albertan marionette dressed up like a Christmas tree.
A Christmas Carol may be a timeless classic, but its puppetry is the real classical art, predating Dicken’s, Santa, and even Christmas. Little wooden characters like these go back to ancient Greek bacchanals, and to marketplace performances making fun of anything and anyone. Puppets have the power to make even the most famous stories instantly ridiculous.
Sure, there are better retellings of A Christmas Carol than Little Dickens; there are at least two other performances running right now in Vancouver that unpack the moral lessons of Scrooge’s bad night and delve into important issues like poverty and society’s greed. But we didn’t come to Little Dickens for sobering lessons or even for the true meaning of Christmas. We came to laugh our jingle bells off and we got exactly what we asked for. If you could use a good laugh, leave the kids at home to watch the Muppet-version and get down to The Cultch for an all-strings attached laugh-affair with The Daisy Theatre’s Little Dickens.