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A Christmas Carol at Shakespeare North Playhouse – review

What the Dickens? This is a version of A Christmas Carol you won't have seen before...

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of A Christmas Carol
© Patch Dolan

At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, yet again you can hardly move this year for productions of A Christmas Carol. Throw a snowball in any direction and you're bound to hit one. But for all its ubiquity – not to mention resonance in this cost-of-living crisis – you'll be hard-pushed to find another version quite like this.

To be honest, the Shakespeare North Playhouse might as well have called it A Christmas Carol – The Panto. This is Dickens as high farce, delivered by a multi-talented cast of four actor-musicians, who take the well-loved festive tale and turn it into something utterly bonkers. That's not to say it doesn't cherish its source material – there's plenty of affection for the characters and their familiar narrative – but writer Nick Lane is unashamedly irreverent with it, and the results are wonderfully wacky.

Lane introduces a framing device as four household servants await the return of their master Scrooge, marvelling at his overnight transformation this Christmas morning. As they wait, they decide to tell the story of that transformation as a way of celebrating Scrooge's newfound conviviality. And so begins a madcap couple of hours in which the quartet barely leave the stage, dragging the audience happily along on their breathless and frenetic adventure.

Zoe West centres the piece beautifully as a bewildered Scrooge, snarling at younger audience members but always with a twinkle. In fine panto tradition, booing is positively encouraged. Jessica Dives, who also serves as musical director, plays too many roles to mention, and relishes her finest moment as the entire Cratchit family, complete with kitchen utensils standing in for the children, eating dinner in reverse. It makes sense in context – honest.

Eddy Westbury also has a ball playing everything from a timid Bob Cratchit to a Scouse hoodie Christmas Yet-to-Come delivering his message of foreboding entirely by autcorrected text. Does this sound off-the-wall enough yet? Abigail Middleton, meanwhile, ranges from an appropriately dressed Christmas Present to a woman with a walnut for a head (I'm pretty sure that's not from the original Dickens), and delivers them all with real joy.

Director Ellie Hurt achieves the major logistical feat of keeping this anarchic stuff authentic and highly watchable. Not only does she have to shepherd her cast through countless scene and costume changes, she does it with a genuine narrative drive and a strong ear for where to find the laughs in Lane's terrific script. Hannah Sibai's design cleverly delivers props on washing lines or up through traps in the floor, and there are moments of genuine drama as ghosts appear in a puff of smoke or clocks whizz forwards and backwards through time.

The songs may be brief and unmemorable, and the lyrics struggle to be heard, but the talents of the cast are unquestionable and the sight of Scrooge on double bass fits right in with the overall chaos. Other versions will have to go a long way to match this dose of Dickens delivered with a massive measure of Merseyside mayhem. Oh yes they will.