Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Book: Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens
Director: Shaun Kerrison
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become the go-to Yuletide show for those who don’t want to put on a pantomime. And yet it’s such a hard beast to stage well. Perhaps best is the read-the-prose approach, mimicking Dickens’s own style, whether it’s Patrick Stewart’s glorious one-man show or Holby City star Catherine Russell reading from a comfortable armchair on YouTube.
Opening the story out risks the haunting ghost story element, which feels like it needs little more accompaniment than the light and crackle of a coal fire. But open it out is exactly what Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway adaptation did, in a production that ran every December for ten years.
The London Musical Theatre Orchestra has staged concert versions of this production before, and conductor Freddie Tapner delivers Menken’s score with all the bombast, pomp and precision it deserves to bring it to life. From the opening bars, it’s clear this is geared towards an Americanised, chocolate box version of Victoriana, but there are rivers of warmth and joy running through.
Brian Conley delivers a Scrooge who’s rather more urbane and impeccably attired than we may be used to, reminding us that this is a man who’s lost himself rather than being truly heartless.
Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens’ book uses role doubling to good effect, with the actors who will play the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future as Londoners Scrooge encounters on his Christmas Eve journey homewards from his office. It helps ground his experience as a possible dream, his own conscience pricking him using faces from his recent memory.
But it is in the ghostly encounters themselves that the full strength of the ensemble shows. Lucie Jones is a sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past, flitting about the stage as she reintroduces Scrooge to happier times. As the Fezziwigs, Martyn Ellis and Sandra Marvin have a hoot as larger than life characters who sweep everybody up in their joy.
Cedric Neal’s jazzy Ghost of Christmas Present – at one point backed by a bevy of Charleston-dancing flappers, not the sort of thing you’d normally expect to see in Dickensian London – is perhaps the most effective, although at times even his effortless charisma is overshadowed by the cuteness of the Cratchit family, led by Matt Jay-Willis and Rebecca Lock but dominated, of course, by Tiny Tim (a mesmeric turn by Osian Salter in a role he shares with William Barker and Brodie Edwards).
Under director Shaun Kerrison’s eye, Conley’s Scrooge transforms gradually throughout the show, making his emergence as a figure of munificence seem far less sudden and jarring than other productions. And while there’s never any doubt in which direction the story will take, this semi-staged concert production transports its audience willingly along the way.
As one of the few West End shows to open in a Covid-secure manner, it’s especially galling that this production will close just one day after its opening night. But just as its Christmas ghosts show Scrooge that a better future lies ahead, so A Christmas Carol gives promise to a reborn theatre in the months to come.
God bless us. Every one.
Reviewed on 14 December 2020