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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Christmas Carol
Noel Coward Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

I have to preface this review with a warning. I saw a strikingly poor performance of this show, and sincerely hope I just caught everybody on a bad day, and that you might have an entirely different experience.

But there is a minimum level of quality below which a West End production has no right to fall, and what I saw flirted dangerously with that line.

It is clear that Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the Dickens story is not intended to be a mock-disaster along the lines of The Play That Goes Wrong or Barlow's own Ben Hur, in which fully professional and competent actors play amateurs bumbling through a bad performance. 

And yet that is what A Christmas Carol too often looks like. 

Everyone in the cast takes a turn missing a cue or jumping a cue, and every scene has a moment of awkward silence as if nobody remembers whose line it is, followed by two people talking at once, to fill the gap. 

Actors repeatedly find themselves standing in the wrong place, and have to move out of somebody's way or turn to find the person they're supposed to be talking to. 

The general effect is of a cast in an early rehearsal without a director, trying to fumble their way through. 

And it pains me to report that the usually reliable and near-National-Treasure Jim Broadbent is one of the worst offenders. 

Broadbent gives the impression of living the Actor's Nightmare of finding himself onstage in a play he doesn't know. He constantly faffs and fumbles, vamping until he can find his way to some approximation of the right lines, and he is almost always in the wrong place onstage. 

I have to re-assert that I am not attempting a hatchet job here. Jim Broadbent is an actor I have always admired and enjoyed, and I tried very hard to believe that he was deliberately creating a very odd characterisation of Scrooge.

But no, he was just lost, and the most generous thing I can say is that so was everyone else. 

And other things about the play and production don't work either. Patrick Barlow's script and Phelim McDermott's staging have a magpie quality, trying and then immediately discarding a string of production styles and devices. 

The play opens with a bit of Nicholas-Nickleby-type narration but then drops the technique until the final moments. There's a bit of shadow puppetry, some more onstage puppetry, a bit of theatrical in-joking, a bit of panto-style audience involvement, a bit of angry social comment. 

But none of these is carried through to become the governing style or tone of the show, and the ending is just a jumble. 

And the styles and staging devices are very uneven. Representing the Cratchit children by a row of talking hats is a nice bit of stage magic, but the shadow puppetry doesn't work at all (a misplaced light?). 

There's a very clever and funny gimmick to make Scrooge and the ghosts fly, but it is repeated too many times, to rapidly diminishing effect. Christmas Past seems to have wandered in from some other play and Yet To Come is a giant puppet its puppeteers have trouble operating. 

Only Samantha Spiro as Christmas Present brings any real life and fun to the show, by playing her as a jolly Barbara Windsor. 

I really do hope that what I saw was a one-off and that you will have a better experience. You, Dickens and the hard-working if under-rehearsed actors deserve that.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Christmas Crol - Noel Coward Theatre 2915  

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