Someone, one day, will decide that Scrooge is a character worthy of deeper study. Why was he abandoned at Christmas and what was his motivation for hoarding money? Such psychological niceties are not for Neil Bartlett in his warmly sentimental retelling of this classic tale.
The motivation for Scrooge is obvious: he exists to give meaning to our Christmas. Indeed, in his programme notes, Bartlett points out how much of our traditional Christmas is a direct product of Charles Dickens' imagination. Before A Christmas Carol, he says, Christmas had hardly been invented. Our Christmases are coloured by this story.
This is a show aimed unashamedly at the young, and it was gratifying to see a youthful audience packing out the theatre (it's not often one hears a cheer as the curtain is raised). As such, this adaptation concentrates on the heart-warming properties of the tale while the darker side is dealt with rather cursorily: Want and Ignorance remain below the spirit's gown.
No, joy is what we want at Christmas, and Bartlett gives us a rich mix. Victoriana and the trappings of modern life mingle happily. I especially like the trolley-pushing shoppers getting caught in supermarket aisle rage and the African Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s a simple but effective set design from Robin Whitmore. Hand-drawn cut-outs illuminate the action, like a giant toy theatre.
Bartlett’s production has the feel of pantomime, although without the audience involvement. And that wasn't far away. At one point, Scrooge says "You'd think I'd be getting used to ghosts by now, wouldn't you?" A remark that must have sorely tempted some in the stalls.
Tim Pigott-Smith has made a career out of playing unsympathetic characters. It's perhaps surprising then that his Scrooge is less effective in the earlier scenes. Perhaps it's because his portrayal reminded me rather too much of a Victorian Albert Steptoe. There’s also an over-reliance of "Bah, humbug", which is treated almost like a catchphrase from a sitcom rather than a measured response to Christmas bonhomie.
Nevertheless, Pigott-Smith manages to transform himself, as Scrooge himself is transformed. In this metamorphosis, he’s much aided by a young and hard-working cast, playing every other role.
Is this show corny? You bet. Over-sentimental? Absolutely; the vision of Tiny Tim's empty chair was accompanied by some discreet sniffles from the audience. Is it great fun? Completely. The cheer that greeted the end was long, raucous and heart-felt. This is not high culture perhaps (whatever that is), but it's certainly a great night out for the family.
- Maxwell Cooter