Southbank Centre (Queen Elizabeth Hall) – until 8 January 2023
As most people have noted, you can’t move for stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this year, so it’s vital that each one has something that makes it stand out from the crowd – and makes people want to see multiple versions. If you head to the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre this Christmas, you’ll find one that does just that. Though the title is a bit of a mouthful, Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is an unexpectedly brilliant retelling of the Victorian tale. With Robert Bathurst as Scrooge and a live band onstage, you can’t go too far wrong.
Rather than Dickensian London, the action takes place in Tennessee in the 1930s; the Great Depression still has a stranglehold over the country, and a blizzard to end all blizzards is coming to town. Ebenezer Scrooge is continuing to go about his penny-pinching business overseeing his bank, mine & grocery store, but reluctantly gives employee Bob Cratchit the day off for Christmas on the condition he owes him two extra days’ work the next year.
As everyone else in the town prepares for Christmas Day (and battens down the hatches ahead of the storm), Scrooge returns home for his miserly oatmeal dinner and an early night. After settling in, however, he is disturbed by a crash, a bang – and the return of his old business partner, Marley. He returns to warn Scrooge of the torment that lies ahead of him, as well as of the appearance of three ghosts that night – and you know the rest.
Although A Christmas Carol is outwardly a good-natured tale about the power of Christmas, it was actually a product of Dickens’ observations as he took long walks around London, seeing how the less fortunate in society were struggling to get by. It’s important that this aspect of the story isn’t lost (even The Muppets get it spot on), and thankfully Smoky Mountain gets it right; by identifying its importance and finding an appropriate setting, the book by David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch and Curt Wollan retains the heart of Charles Dickens’ novella. The advantage of it being set in a time slightly closer to our own is that there are some slight materialistic elements that sneak in (such as the Sears Catalogue) which our capitalist society can identify with.
There is a little bit of repetition on the musical side of things, with a few songs getting a reprise in the second act, but apart from that it all fits very well and actively enhances the storytelling – either by setting the scene, expressing characters’ feelings, or expanding on the narrative. There is a technical issue in the sound design (Richard Brooker) that needs to be addressed for large ensemble numbers: the vocals are almost deafening when everyone is singing together, and it drowns out any solo lines that are being sung at the same time – it’s wince-inducingly loud and threatens to spoil these moments in the show.
Scott Davis’ set design is both practical and beautiful to look at, with a fixed grocery store set in the centre and mining structures off to the sides – and coupled with David Howe’s lighting design it is a sight to behold. It also allows enough space for director Alison Pollard’s choreography to shine, with some terrific hoedown moments at the Fustbunch Christmas party that particularly stand out.
The company does most of the musical work, and brings a serious injection of energy to proceedings. Sarah O’Connor and Danny Whitehead’s rendition of Three Candles (as Fanny and Eben) is a very touching moment in the show, and they play off one another brilliantly. George Maguire puts in a stellar performance as polar opposites Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley, switching from devoted family man to unscrupulous entrepreneur from scene to scene – Marley’s ghost and company’s Hell is probably the standout musical moment of the night. Having violinist Corey Wickens portray the Ghost of Christmas Future is a masterstroke; traditionally this spirit doesn’t speak, but substituting silence for a country fiddle sound just adds to the charm of the show. Robert Bathurst’s Scrooge perhaps isn’t the most intimidating representation of this character, but this does at least allow the audience to see that there is room for change within him, even if he does take quite some convincing to take the leap.
My verdict? A charming retelling of the Dickens classic, with added country flavour – a stellar performance from George Maguire as Cratchit & Marley.
Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol runs at the Southbank Centre (Queen Elizabeth Hall) until 8 January 2023. Tickets are available online.