The ghost of Christmas past(iche) anyone? Writer, Nick Lane and director, Ellie Hurt have taken Dickens’ classic tale and turned it into a seasonal caper full of high jinks and capers. Their stated aim when staging the show at Shakespeare North Playhouse was for it be ‘delightfully silly’ and ‘outrageous’ and in this they succeed.
Snowball fights, giant time worms, the ghost of Christmas present wrapped as a – you’ve guessed it – present, are all markers of a show that is not afraid to take seasonal cheer to new extremes.
The Christmas tale beloved of many generations is here taken by the scruff of the neck by a talented quarter of actors whose musicality and dance moves are as just as much a part of the show as the familiar Scrooge storyline. Zoe West, Eddy Westbury, Jessica Dives and Abigail Middleton each take on multiple parts – in Jessica Dives’ case a Bob Cratchit’s entire family at one point – and swap instruments with ease and fluidity.
This being a Shakespeare North production, there are lots of comic references to Prescot and the surrounding area, including ‘some bloke called Alan from Huyton’ which the audience laps up with gusto.
While the show roughly follows the line of Dickens’ tale, with Scrooge being visited by the three ghosts of past, present and future in one night, the bulk of it is freely adapted and mined for laughs, this being the season of panto (oh, yes it is).
The ghost of Christmas future becomes a hooded teenage scally with a mobile phone (‘la!’) whose attempts to communicate with Scrooge via text messages is as hilarious as it is inventive. Scrooge has seen the future and it is predictive text – this surely was the deciding factor making him see the light and turn his back on his parsimonious ways.
There is, of course, audience participation: this is not so much a warning as an invitation, with everyone encouraged to take part in a huge snowball fight as well as mimic the cruel ticking of the clock as Scrooge is flown round town.
Just as memorable as the absurdity and slapstick elements of the show are the songs which are delightfully silly and rumbustious, and which the cast deliver with high energy.
This being Dickens, there is a serious message behind the tale: the plight of the poor and wretched in plain sight of not only the richest but of most people. In the midst of Scrooge being taken by Jacob Marley on his round of self-revelation, the show suddenly stops dead and we listen to the disembodied voices of present-day families struggling to survive during the cost of living crisis. It is a moment of genuine reflection and a reminder that Christmas will be very hard for a lot of people this year, a fact reinforced by the theatre’s own foodbank appeal.
But for anyone wanting a bit of festive forgetting and undiluted fun, this show delivers on all fronts. It is funny, touching, surprising and whacky in a way perhaps Dickens himself could never have anticipated.
A Christmas Carol is at Shakespeare North Playhouse from 26 November 2022 to 7 January 2023.