Amongst the clutter, centre stage is huge, seemingly cardboard, theatre like the ones you may have played with as a child, the kind where you slide the characters and scenery in and out on sticks. I loved this kind of thing when I was a kid so it was a delight to see the glorious toy aesthetic reproduced on a large scale.
The cardboard, plum red curtain is raised and we watch a just 7 clever performers, lead by national treasure and Hollywood star Jim Broadbent play all the much loved characters from Charles Dickens’ novella.
The story may be a familiar one, perhaps over familiar at this time of year when every third fringe theatre seems to contain some kind of staging of Dickens’s holiday favourite. In a nut shell it concerns the miserly Scrooge who we meet concluding a long day of terrorising his clerk and those poor souls who come to him for a loan, or even a little charity.
He heads back to his lonely home and is haunted by the ghost of his business partner. The spook promises that Scrooge will be visited by three other spirits who will attempt to soften his heard with a glimpse of Christmases past, present and future.
The first takes him back to his school days and reminds him of how much he loved story books before whisking him ahead a few years where his mean spiritedness is in stark contrast to the joyful festivities around him and his heart is broken.
The second ghost transports Scrooge across the London skies for a snap shot of Christmas in the here and now. This includes a visit to the home of his clerk where the meanie encounters his employee’s adorable but terminally ill-son amidst a poor but jolly and loving family.
Broadbent is a joy to watch in the central role
The ghost of Christmas yet to come reveals the boy has died and gets Scrooge to recognise the miserable future he can expect, with no one mourning his death.
Patrick Barlow adds a few twists of this own. When we see Scrooge in action he’s using fake Christmas cheer to lure unsuspecting clients into very modern seeming loans which cripple the desperate with horrific interest payments. Dickens was never as explicit but it certainly chimes with modern times, as does Scrooges visit to a rally of the homeless and unemployed which Barlow employs rather than Dickens’s night-flight to Christmas in far flung corners of the British Isles.
The flying in this production is a delight, as low-tech an effect as you’re likely to see in the West End but certainly the funniest.
Broadbent is a joy to watch in the central role, he has one of those comical faces that make you smile; even when he’s being horrible a twinkle is never far from his eyes. When he finally turns into nice Scrooge it’s as if he’s become everyone’s perfect granddad.
Amongst the many, beautifully executed “rough theatre” techniques employed to conjure a story out of nothing, look out especially for how the performers create a whole family of children out of a few hats and a frail and beautiful Tiny Tim puppet.
The perfect, West End, family treat.