Theatre Calgary’s online A Christmas Carol a festive treat not a holiday obligation

By Lori Montgomery

Filming a theatre production is a touchy business, in my opinion. There is a vividness that comes simply from being in the same room as the performers, and when you remove that element, you need an arsenal of locations and angles and transitions to replace it. Without that expensive arsenal, even brilliant performances take on a patina of stultifying dullness. I’ve tried to survive on a diet of Broadway on PBS for the last nine months, but I often lose interest halfway through. As New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green noted recently, the pandemic has caused many critics to begin to “grade on a curve,” in order to show support for what he called “shaggy efforts to keep the art form alive.”

I was prepared to do exactly that with Theatre Calgary’s COVID iteration of A Christmas Carol. It’s a pandemic, I told myself. Everyone is just starting to figure out what theatre looks like now. Losing TC’s annual Christmas classic on top of everything else we’ve lost this year would be kicking us while we’re down. So cut them some slack, already. 

It turns out I vastly underestimated how much effort and talent were bottled up after almost a year without an outlet, and no concessions are necessary. 

Stafford Arima’s direction places the scaled-down action on the unadorned Max Bell stage, maintaining the comforting illusion that we’re all gathering there the way we would have in past years, with the mechanics of the theatre on full view. He uses very few props and set pieces, many of them familiar from previous productions, creating a striking impression of being haunted by a dream of past stagings. He takes advantage of the opportunity to employ multiple camera angles, but resists the urge to overuse post-production effects in service of the story’s supernatural elements, so it still feels like a stage production. His new version of the story sees three actors playing all of the characters, transforming from one to another mid-scene. They are aided by lighting and camera transitions, and at all times remain at least six feet apart — surprisingly, this doesn’t feel contrived at all. 

Geoffrey Simon Brown’s new adaptation preserves many of the best parts of his 2019 adaptation, but comes in at a very manageable 80 minutes. In fact, it leaves one wondering why it needed to be so long in the first place, and suggests that there might be room for a compromise when we get back to full-stage productions someday. 

The three performances are excellent, and carefully adapted to the format. Stephen Hair, in his 27th year in the role of Scrooge, hits all of the same notes, but with an intensity more suited to the screen, and it’s a treat to see his work up close, as well as to see him take on some of the other roles. Jamie Tognazzini’s capacity for physicality is under-utilized, but she easily and engagingly shifts from Scrooge’s nephew Fred to Tiny Tim to the Ghost of Christmas Past. But Marshall Vielle is the revelation this year. He was entertainingly but uniformly over-the-top last year, as the Ghost of Christmas Present. He plays that role again this year, but with more nuance, and more convincingly acts as a harbinger of doom as the spirit nears the end of his life. Vielle also brings to life everyone from Bob Cratchit to Jacob Marley to Mrs Fezziwig, and he clearly has more to offer than just the comedy we saw last year. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next. 

If you’ve been on the fence about trying out the online Christmas Carol, but feeling like you really should support our local companies, fear not — this is a treat, not an obligation.

The ticket price of $25 gets you and everyone in your household access to the show for five days, but you have to purchase before December 31. Tickets are available at (and you can also donate here to Theatre Calgary’s annual Toonies for Turkeys fundraiser that normally follows the show). 

(Photo of Marshall Vielle and Stephen Hair, courtesy Trudie Lee.)

Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol is online until Dec. 31. For more information, please go to