Much to his chagrin, Charles Dickens never managed to make a penny from the theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol which began appearing more or less as soon as the story was published in 1843. And of course the adaptations for theatre, TV and film have continued in a steady stream ever since, with everyone from Alastair Sim to Kermit the Frog taking leading roles.
Patrick Barlow's new version sticks closely to the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, but along the way he fleshes out Scrooge's back-story to create a clearer picture of how this cynical miser came to be so, well, miserly. He also draws on parallels to today's City financiers – the Occupy protest was in full swing at St Paul's as he was writing – and this results in a sleek and prosperous Ebenezer opening the show, rather than the grizzled, mitten-wearing shuffler we might expect.
The incomparable Jim Broadbent is a splendid Scrooge – canny, shifty and self-serving, who yet manages to preserve enough hints of vulnerability to keep us firmly on-side throughout.
Phelim McDermott's production, ingeniously designed by Tom Pye, contains the action within a theatre that's set centre-stage, rather like a giant version of the cardboard theatres children are given – or used to be given – as toys. The props and scenery are wheeled on and off by the performers, and while the actors multi-task as far as humanly possible, puppets make up the shortfall.
This gives lots of scope for comedy, and the exceptional cast all do full justice to their opportunities. Amelia Bullmore gets one of the best laughs of the show with her teetering Constance, while Samantha Spiro channels her inner Barbara Windsor for a magnificently rumbustious Ghost of Christmas Present. Keir Charles is a force of nature as fresh-faced Frederick, sadistic Mr Grimes, and the wildly festive Mr Fezziwig, whose Irish jig is choreographed by Angela Clerkin. Adeel Akhtar plays a gentle, unassuming Bob Cratchit, as well as the hideously decomposing Marley.
Ensemble puppeteers Jack Parker and Kim Scopes also make a major contribution – not least with their special flying effects, which see Scrooge and his Ghosts soaring across the heavens in a manner that's both ingenious and extremely entertaining.
The ‘play within a play' concept works on the whole, though it sometimes creates a level of knowing self-consciousness on stage. While this keeps sentiment at arm's length, it also doesn't allow us to be as fully immersed in the emotion of the story as we might wish.
But this beautifully conceived tale of redemption and goodwill retains all its ghostly power to thrill, and with Broadbent at the helm, it's glorious family entertainment for Christmas.