ComedyDramaFestive 15/16LondonReviewWest End

A Christmas Carol – Noel Coward Theatre, London

Writer: Patrick Barlow
Director: Phelim McDermott
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott


The character of Scrooge is always given quite a hard time for hating Christmas, although these days seeing as the marketing begins in August and by mid-December all that false cheer is starting to grate, you might be forgiven for thinking that maybe he has a point. And spending Christmas with empty-headed muffins like Constance and Frederick seems like a punishment rather than a prize.

Selling Dickens’s story of redemption in our considerably less festive and more cynical modern times is quite a challenge, so for writer Patrick Barlow the answer is to send it up and turn the whole thing into a light festive frolic.

The story will be familiar to most; Ebenezer Scrooge runs a lending house in the city and notoriously miserly, all he thinks about is making money at the expense of his customers and staff. He rejects all notions of Christmas and charity until one night he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner and three other spirits who take him on a journey through his past, present and future to give Scrooge one chance to redeem his life.

This version of A Christmas Carol is as airy and wispy as the spirits that visit Scrooge and, by eschewing the darker elements of Dickens’s original tale, it goes for exuberance that will appeal to families. Most wonderful is Tom Pye’s design, which renders the entire tale in a scaled-up toy theatre in the centre of the stage with a revolving set that make it look like a pop-up book.

Everything is two-dimensional including Scrooge’s bed, which he climbs over the edge to get out of, and director Phelim McDermott incorporates some impressive puppet work with the live actors to create a visually innovative show.

At several points the lines between reality and the production are sharply broken as we see set pieces being wheeled on by stagehands and they are made obviously visible when operating the puppets.

Surrounding the toy theatre is a backstage area replete with pulleys and walkways that emphasise the magical storybook feel of the central tale and has the audience questioning how much of what Scrooge endures is real or imagined.

Much like some of the Shakespeare rôles, playing Scrooge can have a defining effect frothy fun on an actor’s career – Alastair Sim is often thought to have given the ultimate performance, and while Ross Kemp’s was quickly forgotten, starring alongside the Muppets single-handedly resurrected Michael Caine’s career.

This probably isn’t going to have a significant impact on Jim Broadbent’s future, but he adds a twist to the early scenes by presenting his Scrooge as a man obsessed with marketing who wheedles around his clients, flirting almost to encourage them to take out unpayable loans and using Christmas as a ploy to hook trade. This Scrooge is a comedy figure, a bit of a grumpy old man but never truly malevolent and Broadbent throws himself into the rôle with gusto – it’s not subtle, but he’s obviously having a great time.

The rest of the cast does sterling work in multiple rôles, which they manage to make distinct and people the multiple ages through which Scrooge lived. Amelia Bullmore looks stunning as the Ghost of Christmas Past with hair alight while also being Mrs Cratchitt, and Scrooge’s mother. Keir Charles is equally impressive in the exuberant rôles of Fezziwig, Scrooge’s nephew Fred and is particularly good as the bullying teacher, Mr Grimes. Samantha Spiro channels Barbara Windsor as the Ghost of Christmas Present as well as a variety of comic rôleswhile Adeel Akhtar blurs the boundaries between Scrooge and his employee by playing the younger protagonist and Bob Cratchit.

Barlow has inserted a few extra scenes into his version of A Christmas Carol and the end becomes almost pure farce. This is a fully festive family show that has Christmas spirit in abundance so it is a great alternative to a pantomime. It doesn’t really have much deeper meaning and while it’s a shame to have lost some of Dickens darker atmosphere in places, this version at least makes the central character pretty likeable from the start. That Scrooge, maybe he’s not so bad after all.

Runs until: 30 January 2016 | Image: Johan Persson

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