Towards the end of the first Act, Scrooge dismisses the visions that the Ghost Of Christmas Past has showed him of his past life as “Banal”. He is on to something.
Now playing at the Noël Coward Theatre is Phelim McDermott’s spectacularly boring production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ much revered (and adapted) spooky tale of redemption, A Christmas Carol. Despite some excellent casting and a design team that has, in the past, produced spectacular results, this is an expensive Christmas turkey. One that has the particular distinction of looking and feeling cheap.
The only possible explanation for the tired, lacklustre set and costumes Tom Pye has produced here is lack of budget. Perhaps the producers thought that the mere presence of Jim Broadbent as Scrooge would be enough to ensure success, and that a properly funded, suitably lavish setting was unnecessary? If so, there were preposterously wrong.
The set assumes aspects of pop-up structures that might appear in a young person’s picture book. It has superficial appeal. Use of puppets and cast members as prop and special effects providers (they throw handfuls of snow around, move furniture, and adopt a range of ‘make-do’ positions to further plot devices) provides quirky interest at the outset, but the attraction soon wanes. Peter Mumford’s lighting is functional when it needed to be remarkable.
All of this might have been excusable if the performances were of such quality that set, costumes and lighting could be entirely perfunctory. But the acting largely suits the surroundings, with really only Samantha Spiro scraping by with any credibility.
Everyone is miked; quite why is anyone’s guess. The Noël Coward is not a vast auditorium and the piece is not one where a professionally trained voice ought need amplification. Vocal power, dexterity and tone are critical aspects of a performer’s skill set; they add to the excitement of live theatre. Relying on microphones should not be necessary in theatre like this.
Broadbent is a charming and gifted actor but, for whatever reason, is entirely out of his depth here. His characterisation of Scrooge is, at best, idiosyncratic, at worst, deluded. Playing him like an irascible old rogue with occasionally wandering, lecherous hands, a vacant look, and a fusty doddery/bemused but mostly confused glare, that occasionally flicks into baleful mode, is to entirely fail to grapple with the Dickens character.
If the idea was to re-imagine Scrooge, it is difficult to think of a more tiresome way to set about that. The character of Scrooge is well known, defined for generations by the spitting out of the simple phrase “Bah! Humbug!” Here, the phrase might have been “Aah! Humbug!” crooned self-satisfyingly rather than spat out. Making Scrooge to be not obviously heartless and mercenary rather undermines the point of the visitations from the Ghosts and the haunting by Marley; being eccentric and alone is not a sufficient incentive for a ghostly intervention the point of which is a complete change in character and outlook.
It is difficult to blame Broadbent for this; it is the entire conception of the production which is seriously out of whack. But Broadbent doesn’t help and he appears uneasy with lines and cues, halting in his delivery and not tuned in to the activities going on around him. He seems a Scrooge succumbing to dementia, rather than a tyrannical financial grump ripe for redemption.
Everyone else in the cast plays a variety of roles. Mostly, those characters seem to have escaped from a pantomime, not a Dickens classic. This is especially true of Keir Charles who is affected and unbelievable in every part. Amelia Bullimore fares somewhat better, but she is not given material sufficient to engage her particular skills in a way which permits her to shine. Adele Akhtar underplays everything except Marley’s ghost and proves uninspiring.
Spiro, though, manages to bring variety and dignity to the many characters she plays. She is particularly touching as Scrooge’s once fiancée, Isabella. In the more extreme characters she plays, Spiro brings out the inner grotesque or permits her costuming to make statements rather than pulling faces or using cartoon voices. She clearly understands that with Dickensian characters, grotesquely vivid truth is preferable to Pantomime caricature.
There is nothing remotely spooky about the telling of the tale. What happens to Scrooge could be genuinely frightening, or scary in that it’s-fun-to-scream kind of way or even mildly frightening but magical. Here the supernatural side is almost sent-up but not sufficiently to be actually funny. The addition of pedestrian puppetry does nothing to improve the situation: with no really enchanting lighting, the scenes have a monotonous glare about them. With no atmosphere evoked from performance or design, everything falls flat.
In the main, it is unclear for whom this adaptation was intended. It is not beguiling enough for children nor intriguing enough for adults. Barlow’s script is both odd and shoddy – a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive, simmering plot. Some of the dialogue is execrable, but other sections are solid. The impression left is that you have watched a sketch comedy that is not very funny, rather than a theatrical imagining of one of the literary world’s greatest, most enduring, triumphs.
“Bah! Humbug!” indeed.