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Review: A Christmas Carol (Leeds Playhouse)

Victorian London comes to Leeds in this adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Lladel Bryant (future), Seb Smallwood (Tiny Tim), Robert Pickavance (Scrooge), Tessa Parr (future) in A Christmas Carol
© Andrew Billington

It's amazing to think that there are more productions of A Christmas Carol in theatres today than there were in the lifetime of Charles Dickens – when the success of his novel about poverty and unkindness instantly spawned a slew of theatrical adaptations.

The idea of the novel sprang from a political pamphlet Dickens was planning to write, called An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child. He wanted to convince the haves that the have-nots deserved their attention – and in the end decided his story about a rich capitalist miser who refuses to see the misery and injustice around him was the most powerful way to do that.

Part of the success of this version of the novel, adapted by Deborah McAndrew and first seen at Hull Truck Theatre last year, is that it keeps that rough-edged anger, that sense of social crusading, while simultaneously providing a show that is perfect family entertainment, full of laughs, thrills and genuine scares.

The wide stage of the pop-up theatre that stands in for the Playhouse until it reopens after a renovation next year, is haunted by ghosts from the first: not only those of Christmas past, present and future who come to bring Scrooge to his senses, but also those who wander the action, creating strange supernatural effects, whispering of hardship and love.

The nine strong cast, directed with flair by Amy Leach, work phenomenally hard to embody them, and all the characters in Dickens' tale as well. There is a slight sense of everything been thrown in to suit all tastes. There are carols as well as some specially composed songs. The ghost of Christmas present (Elexi Walker), resplendent in green tulle Christmas tree skirt (lovely designs all round by Hayley Grindle), has a long panto-style monologue with the audience before she tackles the plot. Rudolf and Dancer appear, as does Father Christmas.

Nevertheless, once it concentrates on telling Scrooge's story, the action flies. Marley, burdened by chains, and the shadowy ghost of Christmas to come are both properly frightening; the Cratchit family's love for one another is conveyed with directness and without too much sentiment.

As Scrooge, Robert Pickavance, is both more sneery and more mobile than sometimes. The extended dumb show in which spirits steal his slippers is fun; his transformation is convincingly gradual, as the actor brings real tenderness and surprise to the moments when he sees his isolated former self and when he realises that poverty literally kills. His ultimate transfiguration into a figure of capering charity should send all but the hardest of heart out into the night full of the spirit of Christmas cheer.

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