Theatre Review: Christmas Carol at The Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-Up Theatre

Wave sounds, a peal of church bells and operatic chanting by dimly-lit cast open the show, suggesting Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation is more interested in the gothic elements of Dickens’ much celebrated tale. A lost boy hobbling with a stick is surrounded by ghosts creepily singing in the darkness behind, that he obviously can’t see or hear but we, the audience, can.

McAndrew’s script is a pastiche of direct quotations from the source material but does include added scenes like the night of Marley’s death, in order to replace the scene-setting role of Dickens’ omniscient narrator. Gender switching works well but there are some other more controversial changes, such as the exclusion of Tiny Tim’s (Lipalo Mokete) iconic crutch and a change in the presentation of The Ghost of Christmas Past (Tessa Parr).

One of the most noticeable alterations is Director Amy Leach’s decision to ham up some of the performances to create comedy and ensure the show lives up to the expectations of a Christmas show. Scrooge’s old boss Fezziwig has always been a colourful energetic character but the ghosts that lurk around him less so. Leach has these spirits gesturing to mock his smelly feet and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Elexi Walker) surreally breaks the fourth wall, telling jokes like a pantomime dame. Scrooge (Robert Pickavance) and his nephew Fred’s conversation are all very much played for laughs too, there’s an odd circus performer segment and Santa Claus makes a very random appearance with Rudolph.

Despite its dark gothic opening, younger viewers seem to enjoy the show, possibly because it desperately tries to please everyone from GCSE students studying Christmas Carol as a set text, families seeking a light-hearted pantomime alternative and fans of the original story. Hayley Grindle’s versatile set and traditional costumes are one of the show’s strength, alongside strong whole cast performances.

The addition of music and song (often well-chosen carols like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”) works nicely to link scenes and anchors themes of the novella. Dickens’ humanitarian and philanthropic message feels almost laboured and audiences need to suspend disbelief more than they might imagine but Leeds Playhouse have succeeded again in working their audience.

Christmas Carol shows at The Leeds Playhouse November 20-19 January:

Leo Owen