Christmases past, present and future have one thing in common: Someone, somewhere will be staging Charles Dickens’ seasonal favorite “A Christmas Carol.” It’s that creaky over-familiarity that lets Patrick Barlow (“The 39 Steps”) and director Phelim McDermot send up the story without breaking it. Their cod-Victorian staging revels in its own shoddy theatricality, as wigs get misplaced and snow-drops miss their targets, but never so much as to scupper the story’s heart. That’s rarely been so present either: Jim Broadbent’s Scrooge, hammier than a kitsch-Christmas dinner, is no tightfisted Grinch but a lovable old grump, ripe for redemption.
It’s a decade since Broadbent was last onstage, slaughtering critics as a stagy serial killer in “Theatre of Blood,” also directed by McDermot. As with that show, the fun here lies in watching an Academy Award-winning actor larking about so freely. Here’s a respected Hollywood star wearing bedsocks and a soiled smock, doing his best slurp-the-soup acting. With white whiskers and a twinkle of mischief, Broadbent beckons the three seasonal spirits in by calling out, “Ghosty, ghosty, ghosty,” and, as he flies off with them, sprouts two tiddly fake legs that lift off the ground, wearing an expression of mock moonish amazement.
Staged in Tom Pye’s artful Victorian flat-pack theater, McDermot’s production is full of such theatrical trickery. Two bowler-hatted stagehands toss handfuls of snow over arrivals at Scrooge’s loan shop. A rickety old revolve turns painted backdrops like a storybook and the London skyline is wheeled on in miniature. Spirits whizz overhead like, er, hankies on fishing rods, and the Cratchit children are played by a selection of bonnets and flat caps. Except for the tiniest Tiny Tim you ever saw: a foot-high puppet who limps down the table. Everything gets a routine, all of it driven by Barlow’s rat-a-tat script, in which every other line ends with a “sir.”
Everything sets out to celebrate the absurdity of artifice and, as a cast of four double their way through Dickens’ characters, the simple pleasure of pretending. Adeel Akhtar plays a comic Bob Cratchit, cocooned in a natty knitwear balaclava; Keir Charles, a crazed Fezziwig, Irish jigging around the Christmas tree; and Samantha Spiro a one-woman cockney party as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Pye’s costumes are an eyeful and the whole thing’s as luscious as it is ludicrous.
Broadbent’s Scrooge has another thing going for him. For all that he’ll happily entrap the destitute of Dickensian London into exorbitant interest-rates — a nod to the loan sharks that line Britain’s high-streets — he isn’t a natural born scrimper. Instead, he’s a gentle soul hardened by circumstance: his mother’s death, his father’s rejection, his story-free school days. We know it’s only a matter of time before he buys the best turkey going and sends it chez Cratchit.
That’s partly problematic though, as there’s nothing at stake. Though moment by moment, it’s buoyant, things sag somewhat as a whole — a case of diminishing returns. It’s telling that the final waif’s wake-up call, confronting Scrooge with his own death, scarcely registers: the all-out larkiness takes out its sting and, for all Broadbent’s undeniable charm, robs Scrooge of real, heartfelt repentance.