An irritatingly framed Christmas Carol succeeds in spite of its adaptation, not because of it

Must do better: A Christmas Carol at the Rose Theatre is over-dominated by its classroom plot - Mark Douet
Must do better: A Christmas Carol at the Rose Theatre is over-dominated by its classroom plot - Mark Douet

Such is the timeless charm of A Christmas Carol that if you throw enough money at a production, and hire a sufficiently professional cast, then the outcome is always going to be something of a success. This adaptation from Kingston’s Rose Theatre would still therefore make an enjoyable pantomime alternative for a family looking for their Christmas show, even if writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm seems to have done her level best to extinguish some of the magic.

The main difference between stage show and original tale is a framing device. The play opens to a classroom full of poor Victorian children reeling after their benefactor – one Ebenezer Scrooge (Penny Laden) – has failed to offer any money for Christmas. A jovial ‘Charlie Dickens’ (Elexi Walker) then springs out of a box, and the subsequent story of Scrooge’s spiritual visitations is imagined in real time by Dickens and the children (played by participants in the local Rose Youth Theatre).

The tale is recognisably the Dickensian classic – but the framing, unfortunately, continues to dominate. The children and author sit around the stage, at times playing supporting characters or helping change scenery, but at others interrupting the story with their own discussion. Their presence dilutes the narrative by breaking up the dramatic flow of Scrooge’s experiences. It also means that we are forced to humour the possibility that the story is only happening in the children’s minds, and not in Scrooge's real life.

There may be an argument that the frame helps make the play family-friendly. Yet countless interpretations, notably the Muppets’ Christmas Carol, show that it is possible to build more immediate, spooky suspense, while still making it enjoyable for all.

There is, then, a preoccupation here with making a Christmas classic “different”, which in fact makes it worse. A musical element, with original songs from Eammon O’Dwyer, seems to have been added for similar ends. Quotidien lyrics (“In the streets of London [...] Everything is ragged, everything is crap”) and simplistic melodies mean they don’t quite hit the effective counterpoint-to-plot that is typically required for musicals to be a success.

Penny Layden (right) as Scrooge - Mark Douet
Penny Layden (right) as Scrooge - Mark Douet

Other elements of Rosie Jones’s production work well. George Dennis’s sound design presents the action against a series of evocative, ethereal carols, while Frankie Bradshaw’s set is a tapestry of smoky silhouettes, as well as a few fun sequences involving swings, to represent Scrooge flying across London.

Laden makes a wonderfully stern Scrooge, anchoring the action with a fearful presence, rather than becoming laughably cantankerous. She steers the action to its joyful conclusion, filled with the charm of Dickens’s original. But the success here comes in spite of the adaptation, not because of it.

Until Jan 2. Tickets: 020 8174 0090; rosetheatre.org