Dickens’ “The Chimes” focuses on the plight of the poor as it takes us on a different spirit-led holiday journey

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association.

Although you’d never know it from all of the incarnations of A Christmas Carol you can find streaming this season, the tale of Scrooge’s redemption was far from the only one Charles Dickens ever set in the holiday season, and indeed is nowhere near the darkest. Remy Bumppo Theatre Company reminds (or informs) us of this with its sometimes devastating one-man production of Dickens’ follow-up seasonal novella, The Chimes, adapted by and starring Nick Sandys in a brilliant performance as multiple characters, chief among which is a poor man who finds himself swayed by newspaper accounts of misdeeds perpetrated by the poor into losing faith in his fellow travelers. Set on New Year’s Eve and Day, a time for new beginnings, The Chimes, despite featuring one of Dickens’ most lovable and sympathetic characters, rails harder against society’s hypocritical evils than its more famous sibling ever tries to.

While Scrooge is a wealthy but miserly man who, prior to his Christmas encounter with spirits, doesn’t give a damn about the working class, Toby “Trotty” Veck is a charter member, barely eking out a living as a for-hire messenger. He is exactly the kind of man that Scrooge would pass in the street and either sneer at or not notice at all, and that indeed is the focus of this story: instead of looking at the world through the darkened eyes of a rich man who has shut out the world, Dickens chooses as his focus the very world that Scrooge tunes out. Through Trotty, we see a remarkably timely exploration of how the repeated lies of the upper class about which people are more worthy of society’s care affect the attitudes of those who are themselves downtrodden and deemed unworthy. 

To do so, Dickens and Sandys take us on a journey not unlike that of Scrooge but, instead of three spirits, Trotty is led by the goblin inhabitants of the titular chimes that he so loves through a series of scenes that reveal the bleak and bleaker futures of the people around him. After they inform him that he has died, they show him the itinerant laborer Will Fern, down on his luck when Trotty meets him and offers him comfort, falling precipitously over the edge into penury and succumbing to a desire for revenge. He sees Will’s innocent young daughter end up spiraling downward into a life of prostitution. He sees his own daughter lose her fiancé and her home and consider taking her own life. And all the while the wealthy people he has met, including a smarmy alderman and a self-aggrandizing Member of Parliament, continue to thrive as they “put down” the poor who, as one of them proclaims, “have no earthly right or business to be married (and) no earthly right or business to be born!”

Inhabiting all of these characters and more is Sandys. The term “tour de force” is overused in criticism, but it feels as if it were invented to describe Sandys in this play. Shot with a single camera, with its star remaining close to a music stand from which he reads his script, this production nonetheless provides plenty of space for him to fully realize every one of the many characters we meet along Trotty’s journey. He takes every opportunity to explore them through voice, stance, facial expression, and movement, at times bringing his face almost fully up to the camera’s lens to highlight the pompousness of some characters or the dark, musical undertones of the bells’ supernatural inhabitants, all sharply in contrast to the sweet, vulnerable, and impressionable Trotty. It is a remarkable performance in every way.

The Chimes deserves to take its place alongside its more famous sibling as a year-end reminder of the evils of poverty and the hypocrisy of those who keep the poor down (often under the guise of helping them). I hope that Remy Bumppo and Sandys bring it back in a full stage version next year.

The Chimes is now available for streaming online through Jan 3, with tickets and specific times available from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. The show runs approximately 1:30 minutes with one very brief intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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