'A Christmas Carol' at the Dominion is a sugary holiday treat
With no shortage of visitations by the spooky seasonal favourite this year, why the Dickens would you pick this one? If it’s political punch you’re after, there’s Jack Thorne’s Old Vic adaptation (online, thanks to Covid). And for stripped-back storytelling and virtuoso acting, the Bridge’s three-hander is the obvious choice. But if you’ve been missing large-scale spectacle, and you crave the heart-soaring joy of song and dance, then this might be just the ticket.
It’s a lavish concert version of the 1994 Broadway musical, featuring a cast of familiar talents led by popular comedian Brian Conley. They share the stage with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, under music director Freddie Tapner. And although Shaun Kerrison’s production doesn’t boast full sets, and despite its careful adherence to social distancing restrictions, we don’t for a second feel short-changed. To hear the melodies swell, to share in the exuberant energy of the storytelling, and to feel the vast Dominion come alive again is thrilling. As Christmas treats go, this is a big fat sugarplum.
Sugarplums, of course, are sweet, and this one is no exception. The score, by Alan Menken (regular Disney tunesmith), is richly textured: spine-tingling, shivery strings give way to boisterous explosions of brassy warmth and celebration. With lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the songs nod cleverly to other period-set musical dramas: here’s a hint of the dark, sinister, scurrying themes of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; there’s a top hat tipped to Lionel Bart’s irrepressible Oliver! There’s a wink, too, at Prokofiev.
But the book, by Ockrent and Ahrens, and the tone throughout, is too uniformly wholesome and upbeat. This is Dickens without the moral outrage, shorn of any real sense of suffering or deprivation, and determined to keep our spirits up: poignant moments are rarely allowed to resonate before the cracking of another joke.
On its own uncomplicated terms, though, it’s cheerily enjoyable. Conley is a lightweight Scrooge – his redemption would mean more if it came at a greater emotional cost – but he’s nimble and suitably gruff, revelling in each hammy snarl and in his giddy final transformation. He’s supported by an ensemble crammed with highly coloured cameos. Former Busted boy-bander Matt Jay Willis’s likeable, unusually buff Bob Cratchit needs greater pathos; Sandra Marvin (Emmerdale), on the other hand, delivers megawatt charisma and sublime, quasi-operatic vocals as Mrs Fezziwig at an Oom Pah-Pah-ish Christmas ball. And Jeremy Secomb’s Jacob Marley is marvellously ghastly, summoning up an entire legion of unhappy phantoms, rattling their chains to his jauntily dire warning.
Lucie Jones’s first ghost, if excellently sung, is too much of a panto fairy. Yet Cedric Neal’s Ghost of Christmas Present is a finger-snapping, velvet-robe flapping pleasure, while Jacquline Jossa’s third spirit has an ethereal, corpse-bride menace. Doubling as the young Scrooge’s lost love Emily, Jossa gets a romantic duet, too, with Sam Oladeinde, excellent as the young Ebenezer. Oladeinde shows us glimpses of the scars left by Scrooge’s childhood misery – a psychological weight largely lacking elsewhere.
Add a troupe of winsome and impeccably drilled children as Tiny Tim and other assorted youngsters, and this is a show intent on achieving the maximum sentimental pay-off. There’s even snow. You might miss the grit; but after a year like this one, its feelgood fun factor is hard to resist.
Photo credit: Sam Oladeinde, Brian Conley, Jacqueline Jossa, and Lucie Jones in A Christmas Carol at the Dominion Theatre.