Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol at Queen Elizabeth Hall – review
The country music legend's Tennessee twist on the Dickens classic runs until 8 January
Charles Dickens's perennial crowd pleaser transplanted to mid-1930s Tennessee with a score by possibly the most adored woman on the planet? Yup. This is the very definition of critic-proof. Is it a good musical? Absolutely not. Will you leave with a smile on your face and a little bit more warmth in your heart? Most likely.
Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol knows exactly what it's doing. Rehashing a story that basically works, and allying that to a bunch of toe-tapping, beautifully crafted and performed songs that marry country, folk and traditional musical theatre to joyful effect, results in a show that taps the tear ducts when it has to. It also generates nostalgia for the sort of down-home American working-class charm and folksiness that fastidiously ignores that these people were living in deep poverty where every meal felt like a gift.
Alison Pollard's park-and-bark staging isn't trying to reinvent the wheel but it does showcase some genuinely terrific talent. Musically, it's fabulous: Andrew Hilton's six-piece band are tighter than a drum but infinitely more expressive (having the Ghost of Christmas Future - a glorious Corey Wickens - as a statuesque lone violinist who only communicates via strikes of her bow, is an inspired touch) and feel like another character in the musical, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is Dolly's show.
As a play though, it's a bit of a mess. David H Bell's book rambles a bit, and feels mostly untouched by the divine wit and open-hearted bonhomie that tends to inform most of La Parton's output. It works as a basic means of getting the story across and providing a connection from one song to another but it seldom rises above the adequate.
That accusation couldn't be levelled at the cast, however, who sell the schmaltz for everything it's worth, and then some, and field a bunch of truly magnificent voices. George Maguire excels both as a kindly Cratchit and an enjoyably naughty Marley, whose queasy loucheness feels like an extended Beetlejuice audition (personally, I'd give him the role). Halle Brown is genuinely moving as the woman who loves the young Scrooge, as is Sarah O'Connor as his doomed sister (who also gets probably the best number with the gorgeous, and oft-reprised, ballad "Three Candles"). Danny Whitehead does lovely work as the early Scrooge and his good-hearted nephew.
If the only really superb acting onstage comes from Robert Bathurst as Scrooge himself and Vickie Lee Taylor as an utterly perfect Mrs Cratchit and a feisty young wife, that is more down to a lack of finesse in the writing than any shortcomings in this excellent cast. This is a very fine company, and they're all so versatile that it's a surprise when, at curtain call, you realise that there are only a dozen of them, not including the children (the Tiny Tim on press night was an adorable Samuel Sturgeon).
Sound-wise, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is not the best place to put on anything with lyrics, and there are moments when Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is barely comprehensible (last Christmas's exhilarating Bring It On had a similar issue). It's a perfectly enjoyable night out as it is, but one suspects that it could be a really marvellous one in a venue with better acoustics and more atmosphere. It'll never be a world-beating musical but it's a fun, festive time in the theatre. If you don't love Dolly, you're the problem.