If you love your musicals Christmassy and camp, pop on a scarf and head south to Stockwell, where a passionate group of amateur performers is taking on Alan Menken’s A Christmas Carol at South London’s lovely Lost Theatre.
This Christmas Carol may not stick faithfully to the spirit of the original story, and the tunes may not be from Menken’s top drawer, but this version, with a book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens (who also wrote the lyrics), does have an undeniable – if schmaltzy – charm.
The night begins with an atmospheric set bathed in blue light and swirling mist. As a clock chimes ominously and time races on a projected clock face, the cast enters in a slightly awkward blackout, urging us to “Harken while you may/for Christmas Day is here.” It’s hard to believe that Lynn Ahrens, the same brain that wrote lyrics for Ragtime also wrote “Oh what a kind employer/We’ll work forever for ya” but I guess this is what Americans must think London was once like?
After lots of unnecessary rhubarb-ing and jolly Victorian street people milling about doing Victorian things we meet Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Piers Garnham). Despite being terribly conservative, Garnham’s Scrooge is somewhat liberal when it comes to choosing a key – but fortunately, the whole company is soon in full voice and the choral singing is lovely. Other moments of warmth follow, in particular the arrival of an utterly adorable, if rather shy, Tiny Tim (Arthur Tidbury).
A highlight of the show is Catriona Trainer’s stroppy Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Mop who makes a brief but scene-stealing appearance. That, and the smoke machine which is set behind Scrooge’s chair, gave me two of my favourite moments as, heralding the appearance of Marley’s ghost, it sprang into life giving the unfortunate impression that Mr Scrooge had spontaneously combusted.
What this production lacks in suspense it makes up for in sheer bombast. Marley is surprisingly vigorous for a dead person and, although I’m sure not his joie de vivre is quite what Dickens intended, Richard Lounds has quite a set of pipes. His joyful rendition of Link by Link gives Marley a camp gusto as he warns Scrooge “You shall be visited by three ghosts”. Ebenezer’s reply “No Thank You!” was one of the rare moments of levity from Piers Garnham’s Scrooge. A most peculiar moment follows, with Scrooge performing a dance number with various undead corpses: Less Christmas Night, more Night of the Living Dead.
Just in the nick of time, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Katrina Winters) arrives to show us just why Scrooge became the man he is. It’s as sad to see the young Ebenezer watch as his father John William Scrooge is sent to debtors’ prison as it must have been for the young Charles Dickens to see the same fate befall his own father. Such is the scar on Ebenezer’s young mind that he becomes obsessed with hoarding money and prophetically states “I intend to make my fortune and keep it”.
Much needed mirth normally arrives in the form of the Fezziwigs, with the Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball. But here, bizarrely, the band who at so many times had been too loud were suddenly too soft, as if Fezziwig (a terrified looking Hugh Hastie) was worried lest anyone have a bit too much fun and wake the neighbours.
Things proceed equally badly for young Scrooge. His fiancée, who can’t understand why he’s more interested in his payday loan company than her, dumps him (you can’t really blame her) and he’s forced to watch as Marley is weighed down more and more heavily by the chains of his own greed.
The next ghost positively slinks on – a rather sassy Christmas Present (Rebecca Westberry). Her ethos of abundance and charity is anathema to a Scrooge whose one expression seems to be a frown. Even her backing dancers couldn’t seem to lift his spirits although perhaps tap-dancing girls in Santa suits just weren’t his thing – I certainly would have understood if Scrooge decided that perhaps a miserly Christmas wasn’t such a bad thing after all given the alternative.
After another couple of mulled wines Act two’s musical themes now take on a warm familiarity. Scrooge is reminded of his earlier sentiments when, faced with the death of Tiny Tim, the Ghost of Christmas Future uses his own words against him “Is it not better to die and to decrease the surplus population?” It seemed that pointing things out was the main occupation of Christmas Yet to Come and Jessica Finn played the role well, pointing at things here and there like a recently deceased tour guide.
Finally, Scrooge is confronted with his own death and the lack of those who would mourn his passing. I confess to feeling a little underwhelmed at his damascene conversion. In fact, Act two feels a little rushed and Scrooge’s change of heart felt less like an epiphany and more like a few pages of the script went missing.
Fortunately, another brief cameo from Mrs Mop, the stroppy housekeeper brings back festive cheer and before you know it, Tiny Tim’s alive and well, it’s Christmas morning, the prize Turkey has been delivered to the Cratchitts, Marley comes back from the dead for no particular reason and, as Tiny Tim says, “God bless us every one!”
Too often, this twee, Americanised version of Dickens’ classic novella seems to skirt around the social issues, instead preferring to replace the story’s message with jolly dance numbers and cute Victorian children. But then again, it’s entertaining, there are some nice melodies that stick in your head and you’ll leave with a smile on your face. The seats are so well tiered that even the Tiniest Tim will get a great view – just make sure the grown-ups have a couple of mulled wines first!
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