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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Noel Coward Theatre, WC1



Tom Pye’s design of Victorian découpage creates a toy paper-theatre within the stark stage area: the scenes revolve like worn pages of an old storybook; 2D, apparently lashed-up cutout props are dragged vigorously on and off – doors, fireplaces, a gramophone, a London panorama, a newsboy’s banner saying QUEEN MARRIES GERMAN. Basic puppetry pops up, including some very entertaining human-puppetry as Scrooge and the ghosts fly through space and time with fake legs. (at one point Scrooge protests “Oh no, not the legs again!”). It all lies within the playful metatheatre world of Patrick Barlow (National Theatre of Brent, The 39 Steps, the Tricycle’s current Ben-Hur). Scrooge is the irresistible Jim Broadbent, in great white candyfloss sideburns.

It is almost wonderful. In a less grandly West-endy theatre it would be. Director Phelim McDermott and Steven Edis make fine use of music, old carols in particular. Broadbent starts off as a smooth, payday-loanish financier, whose hostility to Christmas is diluted by the fact that he has just discovered marketing, and put up a big banner wishing compliments of the season to his clients. He is pleasingly defiant of Marley, whose yawning, decomposing mask like a Munch scream has him saying “keep your chin up!”, a nice black joke. He adopts, initially at least, a rather wonderful cod-Edwardian accent (“Decrease the sarplus population”). As the back-story of his sad beginnings and lost love is unfolded, he offers some real moments of feeling, and there is a sharp Barlowesque tearing-down of the fourth wall as the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him dead, and the rest of the cast tell him it’s all been a play and it’s over.
But some problems never quite resolve. You’re not quite sure whether it is sincere or send-up; the language jerks between modern realism and sudden “thees” and “thous”, a device which worked fine in Ben-Hur because from the start we knew they’re just playing at it. Here, we’re less assured of that. The larky home-made look of the production is endearing, and I greatly approve of shows which give children the feeling they could do it themselves at home that night because a play is just play: but it may disappoint some families who reckon you pay huge West End prices for something that looks seriously expensive. Even if it’s a bit of a turkey.

There are some terribly overdone passages too : the brutal schoolmaster goes on way too long, twice, and the wenchy, squalling Ghost of Christmas Present is Samantha Spiro, doing an ooh-get-me! Ruby-Waxish brand of chirpiness which made me want to leap up and throttle her with her crinoline. Though to be fair, Spiro is rather sweet in her other five roles, and some of the audience palpably thought she was a scream. Maybe one has to be a bit drunk. Never underestimate the fatal need of critics to be soberer than the rest of the audience.

And let it be said that the other bit of OTT works splendidly: is Keir Charles’ turn as Mr Fezziwig, doing a crazed Irish dance with his wig falling over his eyes. Now that, I loved. Wanted to love the whole show really; in a smaller venue I probably would have done.
box office 0844 482 5130 http://www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk to 30 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating


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