I had high hopes for Dolly Parton’s version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. On paper, it sounds like a great idea. Dickens’s tale of a lonely man in a gloomy city literally haunted by his past and then his future is transposed to Depression-era East Tennessee. In an Appalachian mining town, the poor make profits for the town’s only rich man, Ebenezer Scrooge. He owns the mines, the bank and the general store. He is pitiless and joyless. He is the dark side of the American Dream – the man who works his way up from nothing to ensure that everyone else has nothing. But remote and God-fearing communities are always full of ghosts, especially when trapped in the fiercest blizzard for ten years…
See what I mean? ‘A Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’ should be ace: an atmospheric retelling of an immortal tale without all the tall hats and mockney accents. In fact, though, it’s only good in places. After a promising start with howling winds and fake snow, plus some decent bluegrass tunes, it settles into rather lacklustre and familiar territory.
It’s not entirely the adaptation, which is by David H Bell and others, with songs by Parton. The Queen Elizabeth Hall isn’t a great space for theatre, and the rather fiddly-dressed static set doesn’t help much. The cast are generally excellent, especially Sarah O’Connor as Scrooge’s late sister Fanny, Vicki Lee Taylor as Mrs Cratchit and Minal Patel as a hulking Ghost of Christmas Present in a miner’s helmet. The band is great, too.
What’s missing are Dickens’s extremes. Okay, the mawkishness is ladled out, but there’s no real terror to offset it. Robert Bathurst’s Scrooge is perfectly believable as a hard-nosed businessman doing his annual pre-Christmas turnout of staff and defaulters. But there’s nothing in his spectral experience to explain why he finally awakes a profoundly changed man. Even the will-he-won’t-he death of Tiny Tim is a bit downplayed, while the revelation that Scrooge once secretly spent a happy afternoon playing with a puppy sits awkwardly with the character who seems happy to evict families in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve.
Part of the problem (sorry, Dolly) is Jesus. This is one of the most overtly Christian versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ I’ve ever seen. I don’t want Scrooge to be ‘saved’. I want him scared shitless in the middle of the night so he stops behaving like a dick to poor people. You wonder if the implicit paganism of the original, with its restless spirits and gods of plenty and damnation, was all a bit much for the team behind it.
Salvation aside, this is a fun and tuneful night out. As a version of ‘A Christmas Carol’, though, it lacks the requisite killer instinct.