Review: A Christmas Carol (Noel Coward Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

If you’re not familiar with the premise then you are sincerely missing out (Muppet Christmas Carol is the ultimate Christmas film!) but essentially it’s about an old miserable git called Scrooge. He hates Christmas and takes great pleasure from ripping off the poor. In an effort to cheer him right up, he is visited by four ghosts: first the spirit of his dead business partner Marley, and then three spirits who represent Christmases of the past, present and future. The three spirits decide to show him Christmas memories so brutal that they force him to pull himself together and become a bigger fan of the festive holiday than Tiny Tim. Who’d have thought?

Review: A Christmas Carol at Noel Coward

The words…

In this new production by Phelim McDermott, the traditional story has had a good seeing to by Patrick Barlow. Here, Scrooge and his world are shown as part of a 19th century play that only the actors playing the supporting cast are aware of. And no longer is it a serious(ish) Victorian message of festivity, it’s a farcical comedy that shows Scrooge as more of a fool than a miser. Scenes are played out like comedy sketches, which for the most part end up feeling wholly inconsistent and fight against the core message of the story; one minute we are flying through the stars in a space ship (yes, you did read that right) and the next there’s a serious message about the joys of Christmas.

Unfortunately the script just about falls short on most levels, and only when it goes full-on comedy and forgets the source material does it really succeed in its intentions – look to Samantha Spiro’s frenetic, Barbara Windsor-inspired ghost of Christmas present for the full-on belly laughs of the evening.

The talent…

There’s no denying that this is a talented cast doing the best they can with the poor script. For me, the highlights of the evening were Amelia Bullmore and Samantha Spiro, who both did sterling jobs with their characters, particularly as the ghost of Christmas past and present. Jim Broadbent is a solid Scrooge, but when more lines are played to try and get a laugh rather than to give any kind of characterisation, there’s never any sense that he is a fearsome character, just a bit of a doddering old man who’s not quite sure what’s going on. And the others are all serviceable, even if they leave little impression.

The design…

This is 19th century theatre through and through, and that’s emulated in the design as well. Rather than using the Noel Coward’s full proscenium, Tom Pye has designed a far smaller stage within the stage that’s more village hall than west end. Outside of that, a false backstage has been constructed to emphasise the play-within-a-play nature of the production. Based around a revolve, the sets are all rickety and have enough wobble to give it a real charm, snow is thrown clumsily from the side of the stage in a knowing way, and there is no effort to mask the cardboard cuts outs being used as props. It’s rough around the edges, but is also wholly convincing and utterly charming. This is big budget theatre masquerading as cheap, rather than actually being cheap…

In fact, the design was arguably the strongest part of the production, often getting more laughs than the script. For example, with such a small cast, some “innovative” ways of adding extra characters have been used that had some of the biggest laughs of the night from the audience.

The special mention…

This has to go to Tom Pye’s designs. It was a real reflection of what McDermott was trying to do with the overall production, and ultimately was a saving grace in giving this an ounce of charm, instead of falling completely flat as a poorly strung together farce.

Verdict: ★★☆☆

Some inspired moments and a talented, if wasted, cast hold it together and stop it from becoming a complete wash out. And the revised premise of a self-aware production and nice set design work well together, but the script is hugely flawed. Scenes hang together like a Poundland Christmas wreath, while tonally it’s as consistent as your old tree lights from the 90s; that’s to say, so multiculoured nothing quite matches and half the bulbs are broken. Sadly, I’m not sure any amount of wiggling would have fixed this one.

A Christmas Carol is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 30th January 2016. Tickets are available from the Delfont Mackintosh website here. 

And the view…

Stalls, row N, seat 4. A very nice seat at a preview price. Despite being off to the side, it had a completely clear view of the stage and didn’t feel too off-centred. The rake was very good by this point as well so we could clearly see over the heads of the people in front. And there was plenty of legroom, which meant it was still comfortable enough, despite the poorly cushioned seat.

Noel Coward Theatre Stalls Row N, Seat 4
Noel Coward Theatre Stalls Row N, Seat 4

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Howes says:

    Thanks for this. Very helpful.

    1. Ade John Leader says:

      No problem. Thanks for reading!

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