×

West End Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Jim Broadbent

With:
Adeel Akhtar, Jim Broadbent, Amelia Bullmore, Keir Charles, Jack Parker, Kim Scopes, Samantha Spiro.

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.

Popular on Variety

West End Review: 'A Christmas Carol' with Jim Broadbent

Noel Coward Theatre, London; 872 seats; £97.25 ($147) top. Opened, reviewed Dec. 9, 2015. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production: A Sonia Friedman production of a play in two acts by Patrick Barlow, adapted from a novel by Charles Dickens

Creative: Adapted by Patrick Barlow; Directed by Phelim McDermott. Production design, Tom Pye; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Gareth Fry; movement, Toby Sedgewick.

Cast: Adeel Akhtar, Jim Broadbent, Amelia Bullmore, Keir Charles, Jack Parker, Kim Scopes, Samantha Spiro.

More Legit

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content