Review: A Christmas Carol (John D. Huston and the MadriGALS)

Red Sandclastle Theatre in Toronto presents a unique one-man take on a Christmas classic

John D. Huston As Charles Dickens in a Christmas CarolWhen you walk into the Red Sandcastle Theatre for John D. Huston’s A Christmas Carol, you’re stepping back into the 19th Century. Long-forgotten carols welcome you into the small shoebox theatre, sung beautifully by an a cappella trio (the MadriGALS, comprised of Denise Norman, Sara Stahmer, and Trish O’Reilly-Brennan). On the stage, there sits only a Victorian writing desk and a single dusty tome: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Really and truly, this is “A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.”

Frankly, this is a story that’s been done to death. Every holiday it gets trotted out and mounted by various theatre companies in various cities across the world. The human race is not lacking for Christmas Carols; so what, then, can another adaptation of the classic tale possibly bring to the table?

The answer here is twofold: first, this is essentially a one-man version of the story, with Huston taking the audience through an incredible amount of wordy Victorian text pulled straight from Dickens’ original novella. Second, it takes a historical approach, recreating the public performances that Charles Dickens himself often conducted of his own story back in the Victorian period. In short: Mr. Huston becomes Charles Dickens for an evening, and you sit with him in a tiny, intimate gathering while he performs his famous tale with theatrical aplomb.

It’s a neat twist on what to expect from a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol, focusing the story in on its essential energy by channeling it through one dynamic performer. The added gimmick (a term I use positively) of this being a researched recreation of Dickens’ own performance adds a unique layer, offering a taste of what the Victorian theatre experience might have looked like: demonstrative performances with lots of gesticulation in order to make up for the fact that 19th century theatres lacked microphones or sound systems.

And so this show, even more than usual with one-man outings, stakes absolutely everything on the strength of its core performer. Thankfully, John D. Huston is a commanding presence on stage, squeezing every drop of emotion and irony out of Dickens’ text (and spraying lots of spit while he’s at it, which is how you know something’s going right).

Mr. Huston has performed this story over 575 times, and while it shows in his utter ease with the material — he thunders, simpers, lisps and weeps through varied emotional beats, sliding fluidly between characters, voices, accents and body language — he also manages to bring an intense spontaneity to every moment of the well-worn tale. He languishes in poignant silences, in long and rolling ‘r’s. He draws out words and twists them into sound effects—describing the tolling of the clock in looong, droooning booms, for example — and folds his whole body into the performance.

Watching him perform is a fascinating lesson in how to be exaggerated and energized on stage without overacting; he channels all of that energy instead into several nuanced performances. My favourite moment was watching the mixture of confusion, realization and haunting heartache flit across his face all at once as Scrooge watched his former fiancée rejecting his younger self, the emotions of the young Scrooge bleeding with wonderful ambiguity into that of the older.

What this adaptation also manages to do is remind its audience just what a damned good writer Charles Dickens was. It’s easy to think about A Christmas Carol as a series of schmaltzy beats, but in this adaptation, we get all of his wit and humour and wry narrative voice. We get to hear all of his potent imagery and his lush descriptions — at intermission, I overheard one woman describing her sudden desire for pudding after hearing Huston describe in luxurious detail the small but savory Christmas meal at the Cratchits’ house.

I think, though, that the Red Sandcastle isn’t the best venue for a show like this: it’s a serviceable one, but it would be truly inspiring to see it in a less modern-feeling theatre, with more of that historical ambiance. This isn’t something the show can help, but I’m glad to read on Mr. Huston’s website that he’ll also be visiting Victorian concert halls, mid-century churches and grand ballrooms on his illustrious tour.

Ultimately, this show breathes some welcome freshness into the experience of going to see A Christmas Carol at Christmastime, and it stands as a magnificent platform for a truly talented, engaging performer. If you think you’re sick of this story, give this one a go.


  • A Christmas Carol plays December 14th and 15th at 7:30 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre on 922 Queen St. E.
  • Tickets are available at the door; contact the box office by phone at (416) 845–9411. Prices are $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, or $10 for those under 18.
  • Family packs are available for 2 adults and up to 3 children for $50.
  • Huston himself recommends that while the show is appropriate for children of all ages, 10+ is more ideal, “and/or children who have been read to from a young age.”

Photo of John D. Huston provided by performer’s website.