Everybody knows “A Christmas Carol,” the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens that has become an iconic stage and screen holiday special. Far fewer people are familiar with “The Chimes,” the story he published the following year (and the second in an eventual series of five Christmas books).
Watching artistic director Nick Sandys as Dickens giving a virtual reading of the book for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, it's not too hard to figure out why.
Mind you, Sandys’ performance of “The Chimes” — subtitled “A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In” — is terrific. He takes on 17 characters, differentiating among their regional British accents, and his adaptation of the tale, trimmed from two hours to 90-or-so minutes, flows along smoothly and fairly clearly. Staged live for Remy Bumppo in 2012 and reprised in 2013, it has been thoughtfully reworked for the digital format with the help of video editor Ian Frank and stage manager Mara Sagal.
The problem is that our protagonist, Toby “Trotty” Veck, is no Ebeneezer Scrooge. He's not a rich, miserly misanthrope in desperate need of reclamation but rather a poor, elderly “ticket-porter,” or messenger, who doesn't have much faith left in his fellow human beings, arguably for good reason. As such, his transformation doesn't have the same dramatic weight as Scrooge's.
Trotty is an ordinary Everyman with whom we can sympathize from the outset. When he's lured to the church bell tower on New Year’s Eve by goblin-haunted chimes that speak to him, the wrongs they accuse him of committing come across as less than completely justified, at least in this adaptation. In sonorous tones — Sandys brings his face very close to the camera and lowers his voice ominously — they reproach him for looking back to a mythical golden age rather than attempting to improve present conditions, believing that human feelings do not matter to a higher power, and turning his back on the unfortunate instead of offering them help or pity.
The last charge is the least convincing. Far from ignoring the less fortunate, Trotty takes in the destitute stranger Will Fern and his orphaned niece, Lilian, and shares what little food and shelter he has with them. He's a loving father to his daughter, Meg, and even hides his misgivings about her plan to marry her long-time fiancé, Richard, the following day.
While Trotty is depressed by reports of crime and immorality in newspapers and wonders if the working classes are wicked by nature, it's his and his loved ones' encounters with the upper classes that cause them to become disillusioned. Sharply satirized and based on real people, they include Alderman Cute, a pompous justice of the peace intent on “putting down” every offender, and Sir Joseph Bowley, a rich, paternalistic member of Parliament who dispenses charity like an autocratic ruler. Meg is so distressed that she's dissuaded from going through with the wedding.
Once he's up in the bell room, Trotty is told by the spirits of the bells that he has fallen and died. He has a series of increasingly horrific visions of what happens to Meg, Richard, Will and Lilian in the succeeding years involving alcoholism, imprisonment, prostitution and premature death. The upshot is to teach him that people are not naturally evil as he may think, but instead meant to strive for nobler things, and that they will fail only when crushed by unbearable forces.
Like Scrooge, Trotty awakes from his visions at home — as the chimes ring in the New Year. Meg and Richard have decided to wed, and their friends have shown up to celebrate. But unlike “A Christmas Carol,” the narrator leaves us with a classic twist: Is this awakening a dream-within-a-dream? Which is real: The disastrous consequences of elite behavior Trotty has just seen or the happiness of the wedding?
Dressed in what looks like a Victorian suit and cravat, with his longish ginger hair parted in the middle, Sandys nicely conjures up Dickens, and the room he's in resembles a proper period parlor complete with handsome fireplace. He has a script in front of him but hardly ever refers to it.
His adaptation seems to emphasize dialogue over narration, giving him plenty of opportunity to flesh out the characters, though some of them remain, of necessity, caricatures. The Dickens descriptions of people and places he does include are trenchant and sometimes very funny.
Though the special lighting and sound effects are kept to a minimum, they enhance the story, especially when goblins and spirits are required. Mostly, though, Sandys relies on his voice and his body. One result, apparently an accident, occurs when his mimicry of Trotty's trot causes the whole room to bounce slightly.
As is often the case, Remy Bumppo has taken the road less traveled with “The Chimes,” and the journey is most enjoyable. By the way, if you're wondering about Dickens' other Christmas books, they are “The Cricket on the Hearth” (1845), “The Battle of Life” (1846), and “The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain” (1848). Not surprisingly, all have strong moral and social messages.