The first Christmas show off the blocks in the West End is a canny re-tread of the Hackney Empire seasonal efforts of director Susie McKenna and composer Steven Edis and you’d have to say it’s a turn up for the carol books given this venue’s wretched record in the secular months.
The social stand-off between measly Scrooge and his kind-hearted nephew Fred is framed in that between a grumpy old decorater and his slightly estranged son who arrive to spruce up the Arts and cover the front rows in a huge dust sheet before finding themselves dragooned into Dickensian jollifications.
Gareth Hale of the Hale and Pace comedy duo might be more suitably upholstered to play Santa Claus, but his Scrooge is a grumpy sweat who develops plausibly out of the dungaree-clad, Sun-reading workman and finds himself enchanted with the revelations of the Ghosts of Christmases past, present and to come.
The show is commissioned, as it were, by two glove puppets – a theatre cat and a theatre mouse, voiced respectively by Sharon D Clarke and Matthew White; the mouse doubles impressively as Tiny Tim, whose operatic solo is the show’s emotional highlight.
McKenna’s production, beautifully designed by Lotte Collett, is cheap and cheerful in the best possible way, with a Quality Street front cloth, terrific tall, stilted ghosts, coloured lanterns and a nice snowfall at the end. Once you adjust to the brutal microphoning, the songs are fresh and beguiling, supervised by musical director Ian MacGregor in the gallery.
It’s all a welcome change from the grotesquely unimaginative Tommy Steele version that’s knocked around lately on larger stages. This version of the perennial story mixes genuine Dickensian flavour with adroit, witty acting and stage craft. And it’s full of heart, not just from Hale, but also Simon Lipkin as Fred, and Rebecca Thornhill and Michael Matus as a pair of hopeful actors, quick-changing eagerly, and cleverly, between roles.
The Arts foyer has been turned into a Christmas grotto with a vengeance, but this will seem less of an assault on good taste as the days tick by, and you can even challenge your own inner Scrooge by joining in the Fezziwigs’ ball at an impromptu audience dance-along. In all, a pleasant surprise.