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A CurtainUp London London Review

The milk of human kindness is the only one.
---- Ebenezer Scrooge
Tommy Steele as Scrooge and Barry Howard as Jacob Marley
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Christmas has already begun in London theatreland. Not panto yet, but that old chestnut, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, this time in the musical form of Scrooge, with book, lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse. Originally written as a film musical in 1970 (featuring the unlikely Albert Finney in the eponymous role), this stage version at the London Palladium stars the equally implausible Tommy Steele as the misanthropic miser turned born-again Santa.

Though not a household name, Bricusse has had an extremely successful commercial career in both theatre and cinema, making his name in the West End in the sixties with Anthony Newley collaborations such as Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and winning Oscars for Doctor Dolittle and Victor/Victoria. But like the much more famous Lionel Bart musical Oliver!, though without that show's cornucopia of good tunes, Scrooge is very much a sanitized version of Dickens' world. Of course, A Christmas Carol is a sentimental allegory but, like all the best fairy tales, it also has a dark-edged, blood-chilling quality which Bricusse fails to capture in this blandly good-humoured family show.

Almost everyone knows Dickens' irresistibly touching story, even if they haven't read the book, of how the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge sees the error of his ways after supernatural visitation and embraces his fellow human beings with Christmas cheer. The trouble is that Bricusse's pleasant, if largely unmemorable, songs never stir the heart or pulse, as the music tends to be anodyne and the lyrics lack bite. Apart from the sweet slow waltz melody of "Happiness", when Scrooge looks back with regret on the girl he loved and lost as a young man more intent on making money, nothing really sticks.

Bob Tomson's slick production, with cosy, chocolate-box designs of Victorian streets and interiors by Paul Farnsworth, in which the ensemble numbers are well executed, rarely surprises, though the illusions of Paul Kieve are very effective when the ghosts waylay Scrooge in his bedchamber. Barry Howard is nicely camp as Jacob Marley's restless ghost trying to persuade Scrooge to repent before it's too late, while James Head makes a big impression as the booming Bacchanalian Ghost of Christmas Present. There are also good performances from Glyn Kerslake as Scrooge's much-put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit and Tom Solomon as Scrooge's nephew and the Young Ebenezer.

And then there is Tommy Steele, for whom the Palladium is a second home, having starred in more performances there - 1,767 before this show! - than anyone else. The original British rock'n'roller (remember "Rock with the Caveman" in 1956? Thought not.), turned family entertainer, is a remarkably spry figure on stage at the age of 68. The arthritic walk and humped shoulders he assumes for the part of Scrooge, like his growling voice and scowling face in the early scenes, fool no one - we always know there is a song and dance man with a famous toothy smile just waiting to get out, like a sixpence in a plum pudding. There is no real sense of resentment or loneliness or fear or remorse in the performance, so there is no dramatic journey for us to share with Scrooge as he changes.

And in case you're wondering what happened to the Christmas spirit in this reviewer, I can only reply, "Bah, humbug!"


Music Lyrics and Book by Leslie Bricusse
Directed by Bob Tomson

Starring: Tommy Steele
With: Glyn Kerslake, Tom Solomon, Claire Parrish, John McManus, Richard Tate, Gareth Jones, Ian Sanders, Janine Roebuck, Gemma Page, Barry Howard, Alex Gaumond, Gemma Baird, Emma Tapley, Andrew Wright, Martin Neely, Joanna Fell, Abigail Jaye, James Head, Susan Humphris, Ian Sanders, Gabriel Vick, Tarah McDonald
Set Design: Paul Farnsworth
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Choreography: Lisa Kent
Musical direction: Stuart Pedlar
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Costumes: Melody Tatania Wood
A Bill Kenwright production
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1108
Booking until 14th January 2006
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 9th November performance at the London Palladium, Argyll Street, London W1 (Underground: Oxford Circus)
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