Charles Dickens' beloved classic A Christmas Carol takes on a musical country twist as it line dances its way into the Southbank Centre with Dolly Parton’s rendition: Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.
Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is a show with great love and the spirit of Christmas rushing through its veins
Set during the prohibition era in East Tennessee, we focus on a quiet mining town by the Appalachian Trail. The residents are poor but their hearts are full of love, ambition and Christmas spirit… well, the majority are. Enter our protagonist of the evening, Ebenezar Scrooge or, in this case, Eben for short. As the original story goes, Scrooge (Robert Bathurst) is a bitter old man with no love in his heart and as the owner of the mine, town store and landlord to all properties, is set on sending eviction letters out to his tenants – even if this is on Christmas Eve. Working alongside Scrooge is his underpaid assistant Bob Cratchit (George Maguire), a devoted father working long hours tirelessly trying to keep a roof over his family's head and food on the table. With a harsh blizzard coming to sweep through the town, Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim (Samual Sturge) arrives at the business (walking stick in hand) waiting for his father to finish work so they can chop down a Christmas tree for their home. They are followed by the local charity seeking donations and Scrooge’s nephew – who asks him to come to Christmas dinner. Scrooge (of course) rejects all offers.
With Scrooge finally allowing the pair to leave, he sets off through the blizzard and arrives at home for the night and prepares to go to sleep. It is here where his night begins to spiral, with the introduction of Jacob Marley (George Maguire… again). The energy Maguire gives to Marley in contrast to Bob Cratchit is like giving skittles to a toddler. George Maguire enlightens the stage with his performance of the chained up Marley, sent from hell to set Scrooge right. Through a musical number, we are lured into what awaits Eben at the strike of each ticking hour in his Beetlejuice-esque inspired performance. It is a thrilling and engaging set that really sets the tone for the rest of the evening.
As we all know, Scrooge is visited by three spirits: the ghosts of Christmas past, present and eventual future that all aim to seethe error of his ways and become a changed man. The first act mostly focuses on his past. As the first strike of the clock hits, Scrooge is taken on a journey to his younger self to find the root of his cruel heart. Taken by the ghost of Christmas past (Carole Stennett), we see the young Eben (Danny Whitehead) filled with light and warmth until one heartbreak sets him on a downward spiral. Danny Whitehead plays young Eben with such great enthusiasm and heart that it is hard to tell Scrooge’s fate is destined for hate. The ghost of Christmas past makes Scrooge question the what if’s of his life and the direction he could have gone down.
The ghost of Christmas present gives Eben a stark look into the current state and lives of the people around him: he selflessness of his nephew, the struggles of Bob Cratchit and the realisation that Tiny Tim may not be here by next Christmas if he doesn’t get the help he so desperately needs. Ultimately, Scrooge discovers the town's hatred for him. By the time the ghost of Christmas future arrives, Eben is a broken man, but sees the errors of his way and on returning home aims to change.
Robert Bathurst takes on the journey of discovery that is at the heat of the novel, playing Scrooge with focus and transparency. It’s refreshing to see the part tackled with understanding giving reason to Scrooge’s as opposed to seeming to be iangry for the sake of it. The transition from his “Bah Humbug” behaviour to his change of heart is a journey that is bound to make everyone fall in love with the character.
The beautifully blended harmonies of the ensemble work well in country music style! Numbers such as Three Candles and I’m Dreaming of a Smoky Mountain Christmas really shine through on their own and credit must be given to players such as Mrs Cratchit (Vicki Lee Taylor) whose range, tonality and conviction to the role powered through with such grace and charm. Accompanied by a fantastic country orchestra, there really wasn’t anything to flaw on this side of the production.
The weakness of the production is the way it seems to rush through key elements of the story. When discovering why Scrooge became who he is, it feels as though major plots are quickly discussed to add extra tension yet they give us more questions than answers. Nevertheless, Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is a show with great love and the spirit of Christmas rushing through its veins.