Melbourne can’t get enough of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale. The traditional Old Vic stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol is back, while MTC has a new take full of Jewish humour tempered by intergenerational grief.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s A very Jewish Christmas Carol. Photo © Pia Johnson

Written by Elise Esther Hearst with Phillip Kavanagh, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol adapts Dickens’ basic premise of a grumpy person visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Instead of Ebenezer Scrooge we have Elysheva Scroogavitz, a modern Jewish woman who is heavily pregnant and grieving her recently deceased Gentile fiancé, Ben.

As we see in one of this play’s peeks into the past, they had previously enjoyed fusing Christmas and Hanukkah. Now Ely rejects all festive celebrations, as well as family and friends: mum Fran, sister Sarah, Rabbi Rivka and Ben’s mother, Carol.

At the bakery she inherited from her Bubi (granny), whose delicious gingerbread recipe remains a frustrating mystery, Ely has a series of supernatural visitors: the ghost of Bubi, a reindeer possessed by a dybbuk (spirit), a golem in the form of a life-size gingerbread figure, and Lilith of Judaic mythology, who predicts a lonely future for Ely.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s A Very Jewish Christmas Carol. Photo © Pia Johnson

Starting with a playful musical prologue that includes a zinger about Dickens being antisemitic, the script offers a funny, accessible insight into the Jewish experience – particularly of the omnipresent phenomenon that is Christmas, and also, in a more heartfelt way, of family relationships. A flashback to Bubi’s youth in Poland during the Holocaust is a bittersweet illustration of why three generations of Scroogavitz women struggle to connect.

A Very Jewish Christmas Carol is never sad for long, however, and regular bursts of live and recorded music add to the dominant feeling of fun in this production directed by Sarah Giles. Snippets of carols and Jewish songs intermix, and there are also familiar Christmas tunes sung in Yiddish – which, together with Polish, features in the script, enhancing this 100-minute play’s sense of authenticity.

The cast is delightful, especially veteran Evelyn Krape. Her Bubi is an amusingly no-nonsense woman, but the cartoonishly naughty-baby cuteness of her gingerbread Golem is hilarious. Miriam Glaser’s Ely is a ball of grief and exhaustion covered in angry prickles. There is truth in her performance, even when she dials up the comedy with her cranky response to everyone from carollers to ghosts.

Louise Siversen is a hoot in the very different roles of the louche reindeer dybbuk and Carol, who is well-meaning but often putting her Gentile foot in her mouth. Natalie Gamsu lends her powerful stage presence and beautiful speaking voice to the spectre of Lilith, and the anxious yet dignified Fran.

Emma Jevons gives Sarah a quirky appeal, while Music Director/Arranger Jude Perl exudes a likeable cool confidence as Rivka. Together they bring sincere charm to the 1930s flashback as young Bubi and her friend, respectively. In the small role of lovably goofy Ben, Michael Whalley quickly conveys to the audience what Ely has lost.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s A Very Jewish Christmas Carol. Photo © Pia Johnson

Jacob Battista’s set is a functional frosted-glass box representing the bakery, within which lurks some fairground fun: industrial appliances that go haywire during the supernatural visitations. Richard Vabre’s lighting helps orient the audience in time and reality, and offers occasional glimpses of the real and imagined behind the glass.

From flour-dusted everyday clothes to the fantastical, Dann Barber’s costumes are spot on. The latter are varied visual treats: Lilith’s voluminous Victorian Gothic widow’s weeds, the cuddly looking gingerbread golem, the anthropomorphic reindeer, who appears to be on an eternal bender, and ghostly Bubi’s sparkly, flowing ensemble, which suggests the afterlife is a Florida resort.

Rich with humour and insights, both cultural and psychological, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol is wonderfully brought to life in this premiere MTC season. It’s bound to be enjoyed by Jews and Gentiles alike, so other companies should put it on their wish list for suitably season-ending programming.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s A Very Jewish Christmas Carol continues at The Sumner, Melbourne until 16 December.

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