tue 28/05/2024

A Christmas Carol, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

A Christmas Carol, Noël Coward Theatre

A Christmas Carol, Noël Coward Theatre

Jim Broadbent's Scrooge owns the show in a very agile, highly imaginative production

Jim Broadbent: 'a tour-de-force performance that has the audience hanging on his every facial expression' Images - Johan Persson

Is Jim Broadbent Britain’s best-loved actor? The slate of screen roles he’s accumulated over the years – this Christmas Carol is his return to theatre after a decade away – has surely given him a very special quality in the nation's consciousness, a combination of general benignity with more than a hint of absent-mindedness, an almost madcap bafflement at the world.

So I can’t have been the only one to wonder what he was going to make of Ebenezer Scrooge, and the top-hatted image of him that grins at us from the poster has the kind smile that we certainly associate with the character post-transformation, considerably more than the persona that precedes his almost Pauline conversion. Try to think of a role Broadbent’s played recently that is actually, well, even a bit on the nasty side, and only his rather unexplained lurking presence in The Lady in the Van comes to mind.

There’s a distinct touch of today’s climate to Scrooge’s business  dealingsBut watching his Scrooge at the end of the week that saw the last of London Spy on television offers a clue. Broadbent’s Scotty was a model of disillusion in age, at the end of a life defined by past fears and disappointments, who’s come to expect rather little either from life, or from other people (Ben Whishaw there being the exception to his general disgruntlement that effectively proved the rule). It’s the same dismissive attitude to the world that’s there in spades in Scrooge – an updated, exaggerated Jacques, almost, here – one that has reacted against past hurts by withdrawing from the world, his disdain amplified by an obsession that has fed on itself to further foster alienation.

Phelim McDermott’s gloriously inventive production – its achievement inseparable from Tom Pye’s design and Toby Sedgwick’s movement – transports us through time and space on flight after flight of the imagination, and nothing’s more poignant than the scenes to which the Miss Havisham-like Ghost of Christmas Past (Amelia Bullmore) brings Scrooge back to from his earlier life. Especially the young Ebenezer, condemned by an angry, grieving father to stay at school over the festive season in the control of the parodically wicked schoolmaster Mr Grimes (Keir Charles), who rips up the book of stories that’s the child’s only memory of his mother, returning him with the rap of a cane to more serious study. That single act is enough to close down the realms of imagination, and the empathy that comes with it, forever, leaving the adolescent Scrooge to condemn himself to Gradgrindian facts over any further chances at emotional development that life does, after all, offer him. “I am in a cave of my own design, and I am happy in it,” is his firm riposte to the alternatives being presented to him.The extra visual treat of this show is its puppetry, which has puppeteers Jack Parker and Kim Scopes bringing scenes like that one at the school to very tangible life. They excel no less with Tiny Tim, in the Christmas dinner episode at the Cratchits (pictured above), where the other children are filled in with bonnets, caps and the like. Adeel Akhtar, his main role that of Scrooge’s longsuffering factotum – do we detect a hint of Blackadder’s Baldrick there? – is an integral part of that supporting action too (and doubles as the Young Ebenezer). He’s the most agile presence on stage, and enjoys every minute of it, with his cameo as Jacob Marley not only a visual highlight, but also the occasion for some of the evening’s most groan-worthy quips (Marley’s decomposing physiognomy has Scrooge cracking dismissively at his former partner to keep his chin up, put a brave face on it).    

Broadbent, too, is relishing proceedings, in a slightly different way. He’s the sceptic, thinking he’s triumphed over the spirits that have been sent to disarm him (he gets extra legs in the process, though). Samantha Spiro as the Ghost of Christmas Present is nicely down to vernacular, contemporary earth, in marked contrast to her more elevated predecessor (Broadbent with Spiro, pictured below). There’s a distinct touch of today’s climate to Scrooge’s business dealings as well, as he extracts a rate of interest that would make even today’s payday loaners blush when he extends one to the suitably named Mrs Lack. That’s a name that offers Broadbent more elaborate wordplay: he seems to treasure such verbal jesting almost as much as the chink of money.

There's an palpably Victorian feel to Pye's design, with its elegant 19th century mini-proscenium set within the wider working space of the theatre itself, its wings providing the space for very busy business, and allowing for an almost Brechtian drop-away from illusion at the close, as the artifice is left behind and the characters reveal themselves as players. It’s a final touch of panache for Broadbent, who begins the show in already expansive ownership of the stage, and simply proceeds from there in a tour-de-force performance that has the audience hanging on his every facial expression (main picture) as well as quip.  

None of this, of course, would have been happening at all without Patrick Barlow’s script, which hones the Dickens original into something new and somehow unfamiliar: Barlow’s a past master, from The 39 Steps, of getting maximum effect from minimum company, which numbers here only five (not including the puppeteers). Just in case anyone needs reminding, it was Barlow’s troupe The National Theatre of Brent that was Broadbent’s home for years (Phelim McDermott directed him in his last stage appearance, Theatre of Blood at the National, too). There’s a sense of glorious reunion for all concerned that speaks for itself, and it shows in an evening that moves along with supreme invention and intelligence.

Nothing’s more poignant than the scenes to which the Miss Havisham-like Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to from his earlier life


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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