"Cold outside?" inquires Bob Cratchit of Scrooge's nephew, Fred, as he leaves his uncle's offices having failed to invoke the spirit of Christmas in the miserly old man. "Cold in," comes the reply, setting the tone for Bryony Lavery's new adaptation, in which the ghosts of the past and future gather to take the temperature of Ebenezer Scrooge's heart. But nothing – apart possibly from the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, conceived as an avenging dark angel in Colin Richmond's design – ever quite lives up to the chilling promise of that early spare exchange.
The evening begins intriguingly with its wraith-like chorus of grey ghosts and a clanking vision of hell in chains, as if Lavery instinctively knows there can be no redemption without a real sense of despair, and that Scrooge must be genuinely frightened into change. But Nikolai Foster's production, and to some extent Jason Carr's musical score, don't allow Lavery to have the courage of her convictions: they seem to be working against that impetus as if worried that the audience might be scared by too much harsh reality.
Before long, instead of sending a shiver down the spine, the production has transported us to the cosy, Christmas card territory of fake snow and happy Victorian clerks doing the kind of heel-snapping dances that 21st-century choreographers seem to imagine 19th-century people spent their time doing to keep warm. Poverty has never seemed quite so jolly as it is here, in a production in which miserliness is defeated by the triumphal wobbling blancmanges of conspicuous consumption and lots of beautifully wrapped Christmas presents. It seems that Dickens's story is no more than an advert for a cut-price supermarket, after all.
Even so, if some things are plain wrong, others are right, too: Lavery's script has touches of warm-hearted wit, and Peter Polycarpou's Scrooge suggests a man who, in putting himself outside of society, has banished himself from the fireside of warmth and companionship. "The business of the poor is not my business," he proclaims as he sets about collecting his rents on Christmas Eve, only to finally understand that he is wrong. There are moments, too, particularly when it draws on airs and snatches of carols, in which Carr's score speaks as loudly as the words.
The show slips down as easily as mince pies and mulled wine, but while it's neatly packaged, there's little to distinguish this from hundreds of staged Christmas Carols past, present and, no doubt, future.
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Guardian: A Christmas Carol | Theatre review
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