A Christmas Carol, Shakespeare North: hard to say ‘humbug’ to this madcap, inventive retelling

'Merry Christmas, everyone!': Eddy Westbury in A Christmas Carol - Patch Dolan
'Merry Christmas, everyone!': Eddy Westbury in A Christmas Carol - Patch Dolan

Ever since it was published in 1843, A Christmas Carol has been ripe for retelling and, given its subject matter, especially this year when economic hardship is casting a chill on so many. But the problem any new production of Dickens’s much-loved novella has to contend with is that it will inevitably be haunted by the ghosts of A Christmas Carol adaptations past on stage, screen – and even video games.

So if you are Shakespeare North Playhouse – the newly built and only 17th century-style timber theatre outside of London – how do you reimagine this perennially-popular tale of compassion triumphing over miserliness?

You would do several things. Take the bare bones of the familiar plot and imbue it with the Scouse personality of your locality in Prescot to root it in a specificity of place by, for instance, nodding to the town's history of clockmaking in Hannah Sibai’s design. You’d also hire a young cast of four fabulously zesty, versatile performers to flesh out the 30-odd characters, who also happen to be multi-instrumentalists playing everything from accordion and saxophone to mandolin and Peruvian cajón. Then you’d douse it in lots of original songs, sprinkle it with a bit (but not too much!) of panto Christmas spirit and perform it in-the-round to maximise audience participation.

Shakespeare North’s production begins with four Dickensian colleagues – Liza (Jessica Dives), Clara (Abigail Middleton), Elvira (Zoë West) and Pod (Eddy Westbury) – narrating Scrooge’s story, in song, to a large gathering of street urchins (the audience) on Christmas Eve. Famous for being the meanest man in Prescot, Scrooge would cancel Christmas if he could, they tell us.

It takes a long minute for this preamble to transform into the meat of the action. Some physical gags drag and a few too many songs, some of which inexplicably sound like they are straight out of an American high school musical, slow the pace. Furthermore, the audience is repeatedly informed that it’s being told a story instead of getting on with the actual storytelling. By the time Jacob Marley’s ghost, who manages to be simultaneously scary and funny, finally appears a full 45 minutes into the show, I was echoing Scrooge’s exhortation for it to get to the point.

Convival and charming: Zoe West as Scrooge - Patch Dolan
Convival and charming: Zoe West as Scrooge - Patch Dolan

However, after the audience has been persuaded to “rattle like chickens”,  Ellie Hurt’s direction picks up pace, showcasing writer Nick Lane brilliant witticisms (“humbug is just a random sweet”) and madcap, anachronistic warping of Dickens’s classic tale. The spectres are particularly clever and inventive. The Ghost of Christmas Past mistakenly, hilariously, takes Scrooge to the past of a bloke named Alan who lives in nearby town Huyton before course-correcting.

Later, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come – a hooded youth representing the grim reaper and sporting eyewear reminiscent of Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation – communicates silently by texting on a mobile phone hampered by predictive text to riotous effect then breaks into a street dance number entitled “I’m Scary and I Know It.”

It’s the charismatic energy of the astonishingly talented cast that makes this show convivial and charming but the beauty of Dickens’s original is its brevity. If the production can channel that by tightening up the first half hour, Shakespeare North will be on to a winner for the rest of the run.

A Christmas Carol runs until Jan 7; tickets (shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk)