Theatre review: A Very Jewish Christmas Carol, Southbank Theatre

A repurposing of Dickens' classic tale with a gingerbread golem and a miser called Scroogavitz.
A Very Jewish Christmas Carol. Image is two people standing on stage in a spotlight in front of a red curtain. One is dressed as a present, the other as a Christmas tree.

For my generation, the invention of Chrismukkkah, a fusion of Christmas and Hanukkah from the teen soap The O.C., became part of the zeitgeist, so it was smart for the Melbourne Theatre Company to devote a show to the idea and, in doing so, draw in festive season audiences. Directed by Sarah Giles, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol takes the Dickensian tropes of being haunted by past, present and future and turns them into a fun family story that everyone can enjoy.

The play tells the story of Ely (Miriam Glaser), a local baker whose last name is Scroogavitz and whose attitude towards celebrating Christmas since the death of her partner is reminiscent of the Dickensian miser. In a surprising feminist twist, said partner (Michael Whalley) is also her the father of her unborn child – Ely is pregnant and due on Christmas Eve. 

In the meantime, she has to contend with her enthused mother (Natalie Gamsu), her helicopter mother-in-law (Louise Siversen) and the memory of her Bubby (Evelyn Krape), who beckons her back to the past of a Poland full of ghosts. Jacob Battista’s set is understated and effective with the occasional tinsel of Chrismukkah joy and Dan Barber’s costumes bring the story to life. 

It’s a sweet story, inflected with the memory of family stories that are told to us so often we feel like we’ve lived them ourselves. The play uses doubling cleverly and movingly where the rabbi (Jude Perl) doubles as the young Polish Christian who joins Ely’s Bubby in celebrating the family’s first Chrismukkah.

Krape brings her usual mischief and glee to a script that’s smart about Jewish tropes and gives us a reindeer that is haunted by the presence of a dybbuk (which, in Jewish folklore, is a kind of demon that can possess the dead) and a gingerbread golem that wants to kill Ely’s mother-in-law.

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Gingerbread is the MacGuffin that links all the plot strands together. The story, with all its haunting, ends in the present with a sense of good tidings, comfort and joy. The burning lights are not lit, but the family is brought together with the warmth of a fireplace and all the ghosts are laid to rest. This is a fun family story that’s a great opportunity for young and old to bond over the love of the stage. High art it’s not, but then again, neither was Dickens, and his festive season story helped define the zeitgeist of his time.

A Very Jewish Christmas Carol
Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre

Writer: Elise Esther Hearst with Phillip Kavanagh
Director: Sarah Giles
Associate Director: Cassandra Fumi
Musical Director/Arranger: Jude Perl
Set Designer:Jacob Battista

Costume Designer: Dann Barber
Lighting Designer: Richard Vabre
Sound Designer and Composer: Jed Palmer

Dramaturg: Jennifer Medway
Design Concept Contributor: Jonathon Oxlade
Voice and Text Coach: Matt Furlani
Fight Choreographer: Lyndall Grant
Intimacy Coordinator: Cessalee Stovall
Polish Translation and Language Coach: Krystyna Duszniak
Yiddish Translation: Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis
Yiddish Language Coach and Song Translation: Freydi Mrocki

Cast: Natalie Gamsu, Miriam Glaser, Emma Jevons, Evelyn Krape, Jude Perl, Louise Siversen and Michael Whalley

A Very Jewish Christmas Carol will be performed until 16 December 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin