‘TIS the season to be thinking about Christmas and theatre-goers at this time of year get the choice of pantos or, it seems, A Christmas Carol.
Both are in abundance. I’ve seen two Christmas Carols in the past ten days and have one more to go this Saturday but the pair seen so far couldn’t be more different.
Tommy Steele has been around since I was a babe (amazingly,longer actually). Mention his name to anyone and they’ll throw up Little White Bull, Half A Sixpence and Finian’s Rainbow and more. He is a wonderful showman who still, at the age of 74, has an incredible singing voice and five-star personality.
To me he’s forever associated with a beaming, toothy smile and everything that was upbeat and cheery about pop and the stage and screen musical.
So I’m sad to say that I felt he was hopelessly miscast in Scrooge, the mega musical version of A Christmas Carol, now doing the rounds. He was even grinning in the programme when the show pitched up at Milton Keynes Theatre and he did everything he could to make Dickens’ miserly old curmudgeon into an amiable and, dare I say it, likeable old fool.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a good show because this was a great show, one of those big West End productions which we are now fortunate to be able to see right on our doorstep.
The book, music and lyrics were by the legendary Leslie Bricusse, it had a cast of thousands, a stunning set, special effects that truly made you gasp with astonishment and gorgeous costumes. It had everything.
But Steele is just too nice a man to play a character as loathsome as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.
At The Court Theatre, Tring on Friday, I saw a performance of A Christmas Carol that sent shivers down your spine and spooked more than a few children in the audience. It didn’t have an all-singing, all dancing cast or the big budget for impressive special effects nor did it have a huge star in the lead but it was an engrossing and well told story.
Director Eileen Reece and her own Scrooge, Mike Code, decided to do away with the schmaltzy Christmassy, Disney version of events and go right back to the source which, at times, made the tale as grim as a Victorian workhouse.
Here was a Scrooge so malevolent that one glance from this washed-out, snarling wretch of humanity and milk would curdle. If anyone needed to bathe in the spirit of Christmas it was this sorry specimen of a man.
The dialogue was true to the original story which, at times, made it hard going for youngsters hoping for a Muppets’-style version . The long opening narrative, which set the scene, needed editing but gave a summary to anyone who didn’t know the story.
London money-lender Ebenezer Scrooge was a heartless old cove whose business partner, Jacob Marley, had died. A lifetime of penny-pinching and loneliness had made the old man incapable of compassion – even when his hard-working clerk, Bob Cratchit (played with subtlety by theatre regular Dan Clucas) wanted to leave early on Christmas Eve to spend time with his disabled son, Tiny Tim, and the rest of his family.
To teach him a lesson he is visited by the ghost of Marley (a truly eerie performance by Malcolm Stubbs aided by excellent lighting and sound, make-up and costume)and three others who attempt to show the bachelor that it was never too late to change.
Again we had a cast of, seemingly, hundreds who came and went as players in the streets of London. One stand-out moment was a poignant song by nine-year-old Wingrave boy William Darby as Tiny Tim. It was a tremendously moving performance by a young boy who is already the veteran of three other shows.
It was an ambitious production and a great effort that was warmly received by a packed audience.
This Saturday the Chapterhouse Theatre Company returns to The Grove with its rendition of the Dickens’ classic.