A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s famous tale of a hateful, covetous miser who can barely bring himself to look at a mince pie without exclaiming “Humbug!”, has been adapted in all manner of ways for stage, television, film and radio.
This new West End version, created by Susie McKenna and Steven Edis, the team behind the annual Hackney Empire pantomime, is aimed squarely at the younger generation with more than a hint of their thigh-slapping, audience-participating, “he’s behind you”-ing tradition mixed in with the ghostly tale about finding your Christmas spirit.
The twist in this production at the Arts theatre, is that the show starts with a couple of decorators stumbling onto the stage with a pair of audience members who are late for the show. Not sure how to react, they are convinced by the resident theatre cat Bentolina (voiced by Sharon D Clarke) and Charlie the mouse (voiced by Matthew White) to perform the festive tale for their captive audience.
The set up is far from watertight if you think about it too much, which is why it is best not to. As the famous plot starts to progress, with spirits visiting Scrooge to save him from eternal damnation and bring a little Christmas cheer to old London town, the framing story becomes less and less important and intrusive.
Gareth Hale might be the reddest Scrooge in history, his ire and anger at festivities and happiness bringing a crimson glow to his cheeks as he rumbles and bellows his way through the show. The experienced West End support from Simon Lipkin, Michael Matus and Rebecca Thornhill, playing almost all the other parts – some are taken by their fluffy onstage companions – adds polished vocals to the pacey production.
In panto-ising the show – mostly during the first half – adding audience dancing and references to theatre, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, this adaptation of A Christmas Carol may have sacrificed some of the story’s enduring charm for cheap laughs and interaction. This irked me a little, but maybe I am being a bit of a Scrooge; it certainly didn’t bother the kids in the audience who were as excited by its playfulness and puppetry as they no doubt will be when they wake up on Christmas Day.