Review: A Christmas Carol (Dominion Theatre)
The musical version of Dickens' classic managed to reach opening night at the Dominion Theatre just before London is put into tier three
Before the show started, in the socially distanced loos, I met a woman whose son was one of the children starring, on a rotation basis, in this staged concert version of A Christmas Carol. The government had just announced that London was being put into Tier Three in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, so the show was going to close, the day after press night. `'It's really hard to explain to him that his first night is also his last," she said, sadly. "He's worked so hard."
As it is for her son, so it is for every theatre – both in London and across the country – that has boldly struggled back to life in order to provide a little festive distraction and has been instantly cut off at the knees by the cruellest of blows. If you wanted to kill the thriving British theatre industry, you couldn't come up with a better plan than to let shows open, at considerable cost, and with a fantastic amount of commitment from an-already frightened freelance community, and then tell them they had to close within days.
Some will fight back once more, their spirit undaunted. But others, like this pared back version of the Broadway hit by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, were originally scheduled to bridge the Christmas period. It's harder to see A Christmas Carol coming back for a run in January, so when snow fell from the rafters at the close and a pluckily cute Tiny Tim (Osian Salter) suggested "God Bless us, everyone", it seemed heart-breaking (the show is currently exploring options, it's been confirmed). So much effort for so little reward.
I can't help thinking that if every cabinet minister was asked to sit through one show just as it was about to close, was required to experience the love that flows from audience to actors and back again, was mandated to watch the theatre business at full stretch, striving to combine commerce and art, to make some sense of changing circumstances, then we'd get better government all round.
I feel that even though, in all honesty, this musical isn't my cup of tea. I find the Disney-fication of Dickens (Menken is the man behind hits such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) slightly irritating and very sentimentalising, I think the songs are serviceable rather than special, and the lyrics decidedly bland.
But there is no mistaking the enthusiasm and care with which this revival is mounted, built around a performance from Brian Conley as Scrooge that defines professional. Conley absolutely knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and he does it from the moment that his rather suave Scrooge first exclaims "Bah, humbug!". He finds feeling and warmth too, as the show jogs along to its happy ending.
It's fun rather than frightening, jolly rather than admonitory. With the London Musical Theatre Orchestra joyfully conducted by Freddie Tapner taking up most of the stage, director Shaun Kerrison concentrates on keeping the movement fluid and front and centre, helped by projections designed by George Reeve that swiftly and effectively change the scene. There are some lively performances from the ensemble; the children are uniformly attractive, Matt Jay-Willis is an engaging Bob Cratchit, and Jeremy Secomb a surprisingly jaunty Marley's ghost.
The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come are neatly doubled with the poor people who Scrooge ignores before he becomes a changed man, and Lucie Jones, Cedric Neal and Jacqueline Jossa fill them with personality. The chorus is terrific and the entire evening whips along.
All in all, an excellent entertainment for a Christmas season. How sad that having been encouraged to spend time and money making themselves Covid-safe, theatres are now once again closed. It feels a very Scrooge-like gesture on the part of a government that has yet to prove they love the arts. Bah, humbug indeed.