It has been labelled the festive event of the year – and with good reason. Jim Broadbent’s renewed partnership with the anarchic Patrick Barlow has created a splendidly eccentric adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
The opening London’s Noël Coward Theatre saw the sell-out audience chuckle from beginning to end as Barlow, who reinvented Buchan’s spy thriller The 39 Steps into a winning spoof, worked his magic on Charles Dickens’ warm-hearted morality story and with hilarious results.
It has been a decade since award-winning actor, Broadbent, has appeared on the West End stage and, with the added pressure of press night, we can forgive him needing a prompt after forgetting a line in the opening act.
Barlow has made subtle changes to this most familiar story. Broadbent plays Ebenezer Obadiah Scrooge (I never knew he had a middle name) as a hugely successful loan shark who knows the value of marketing and squeezing eye-watering interest from his customers that would earn him the respect of today’s payday loan industry.
Surprisingly, this oily banker greets every potential client with a cheery smile and a warm greeting. He appears the brightest Scrooge I’ve ever encountered.
“It’s our scared duty as financiers to help the poor in their time of need!” he says with a nod and wink to the audience.
This is the funniest interpretation I’ve seen with a lot of scenes played strictly for laughs. The star often raises a titter just by mugging at the house and raising his eyebrows. It’s all fundamental stuff but the comedy comes thick and fast.
Here is a Scrooge who is totally unimpressed by the three ghostly encounters he must endure. After a night with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Amelia Bullmore, resplendent in white, in one of her many guises throughout the performance) he declares: “The scenes you showed me weren’t particularly interesting. They were banal”.
Tom Pye’s set design, coupled with Phelim McDermott’s inspired direction, finds us watching scene shifters on stage bringing on props, tossing snow at characters (and occasionally missing), views of the ensemble and puppeteers as they work in an improvisational approach to the production.
There is the clever use of puppets, and Cratchit’s children are nothing more than a collection of bonnets and hats – which saves on the wages’ bill.
This rough theatre style generally works well but a whole scene involving shadow work is completely lost on the audience sitting on the right hand side of the auditorium who can’t see that part of the revolve stage.
There’s a running gag which has Scrooge and his ghostly encounter use fake legs to “fly” from one spectral scene to another. It’s very funny the first couple of times but the joke wears a bit thin after a while. Even Scrooge groans: “Oh no! Not the legs!!”
This is a joyous production that makes the most of Patrick Barlow’s imaginative adaptation, the skill of a top actor bringing a vaudevillian approach to a normally dour curmudgeon and inventive story-telling.
The remaining cast of four are superb, playing more than 20 parts between them. Adeel Akhtar, who seems to be everywhere on TV at the moment (BBC’s Capital & River), makes a touching Bob Cratchit, and a formidable double act playing straight man to Broadbent’s Scrooge.
He later brings a bit of cartoon horror to Jacob Marley, aided by an impressive mask, before turning up as the young Scrooge, a carol singer and a puppeteer.
Samantha Spiro’s Ghost of Christmas present is very much in the style of a red-headed Barbara Windsor while the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a compilation effort with a collection of bodies under a mantle of black.
Keir Charles hops from sadistic head teacher to benevolent nephew and on to an ebullient Irish Fizziwig, each character delightfully realised.
I’m not sure the final new scenes entirely work but it’s a twist which I won’t give away.
This production of A Christmas Carol is heartwarming, uplifting, funny, and full of Yuletide cheer (and that’s not from the welcome mulled wine served to the press on our arrival!)
Jim Broadbent’s Scrooge, played as an oily financier with an eye for marketing, provides lots of laughs in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol.