A Christmas Carol
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Jim Broadbent reminds us how good as he returns to the stage with this knowing Dickens adaptation
If you think Jim Broadbent's decision to return to the stage after a decade off must have been prompted by an outbreak of Yuletide sentimentality, then look again at the credits to ‘A Christmas Carol’. Productions of Charles Dickens’s moralistic ghost story may practically infest London at this time of year – I count five on right now – but this one is special, not because it’s got the highest profile, but because it sees Broadbent reunited with his long-term collaborator Patrick Barlow, with whom he concocted several weird and wonderful shows in the ‘80s
And true to that past, director Phelim McDermott’s production ditches the chintz in favour of a gently anarchic Brechtian romp, that dials down the sentiment in favour of larky irony and jocular breaking of the fourth wall, while simultaneously bulking out Scrooge’s back story in a way that humanises him more than Dickens ever did.
The towering Broadbent – you forget he’s 6’ 2” – is not your average miser. Rather, his Ebenezer Scrooge is a suave, smooth-talking city gent who charms his customers with OTT French platitudes and festive music from a (wantonly anachronistic) phonograph operated by Adeel Akhtar’s Baldrick-y Bob Cratchit. Of course, behind the patter Scrooge is a monstrous bastard who hates Christmas, demands extortionate interest from his vulnerable clients – he’s a pointed amalgam of a payday lender and a city trader – and has the sort of cheery disregard for his fellow man that might make George Osborne blanch.
You almost don’t feel sorry for him: he’s happy in his campy malevolence, and when he’s visited by the shambolic shade of his old partner Marley – who he roundly mocks – you realise the ghosts are unlikely to scare him to decency. In fact the spirits are a hoot, with Amelia Bullmore’s earnest Christmas Past and Samantha Spiro’s Babs Windsor-alike Christmas Present taking him on journeys through space and time that involve some uproariously lo-fi flying sequences. It’s in these cutaway sequences that Scrooge is fleshed out, as a sensitive young boy who lost his mother and his sister and who pushed his fiancee away thanks to the teachings of the abhorrent Mr Grimes (a deliciously vile turn from Keir Charles).
You know the story and you know that redemption comes – but rarely does it arrive with such tongue-in-cheek panache. This isn’t so radical a spin on Dickens that anybody will walk out in outrage: it’s just really, really fun, while the return of the charismatic, hilarious Broadbent is as good a Christmas present as Theatreland could hope for.
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