Not since the Muppets’ Christmas Carol has there been such a spirited adaptation of Charles Dickens’ fable in which miserly Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a better man with the help of three visiting spirits and Christmas cheer. With oodles of Victorian nostalgia, a handful of adorable puppets, a sprinkling of snow, some festive carols and an utterly brilliant cast, A Christmas Carol makes for a charming night of theatre.
Patrick Barlow’s rewrite of the story remains loyal to the original, though his few changes really shift the tone. Jim Broadbent, who leads the cast, is a far nicer Ebenezer than we’re used to. He’s funny, cracking jokes with Bob Cratchit (Adeel Akhtar) rather than berating him. While this Scrooge’s smooth exterior makes his frequent, apoplectic outbursts about the poor even more shocking, it also makes him likeable and this is a bit problematic since he’s supposed to be the villain – until the end at least. More positively, Barlow’s side swipes at bankers and politicians and his addition of a scene about a real-life workers’ march on Kennington Common draw parallels with out own hard times in subtle ways. This Christmas Carol is sung strictly to Barlow’s hymn sheet; small inconveniences such as the book’s foreshadowing of the deaths of loveable Tiny Tim and the reformed Scrooge are quickly erased in favour of a happy ending. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does seem incongruous in an adaptation that is otherwise so decisively dark and so darkly Dickensian.
Where the production really sparkles is in Tom Pye’s design. The set looks like a pop-up book, pages turned to reveal a new scene from Scrooge’s past, present, or future. Against the clever backdrop, the small but perfectly formed cast play about five characters each. Samantha Spiro is particularly fantastic, first as an impoverished mother desperate for a loan, then as a forgotten lover, a long-lost sister, and finally as a brilliant, Barbara Windsor-inspired Ghost of Christmas Present. The ensemble is incredibly sharp – and well directed by Phelm McDermott – bringing out each detail to its fullest effect – comic or tragic. Around them dance puppets, controlled by talented on-stage puppeteers Jack Parker and Kim Scopes, who also double as set-movers, sound effect providers and snow-storm generators, standing near doorways with pockets full of white flakes, lending the production a delightfully handmade and metatheatrical aesthetic.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is sad, beautiful and heart-warming, and this production truly captures that spirit. Playful, witty and sweet enough to have even the miserliest Scrooge swapping his ‘Bah! Humbug!’ for ‘God bless us, everyone’, A Christmas Carol is the perfect way to ease into the festive season – a night of comfort and joy.