Review by Daz Gale
There are no shortage of productions of A Christmas Carol around the UK at the moment, especially in London. In fact, this is the fifth review of it on this website in the last month alone. The thought of another one can turn even the most jolly person into a miserly Scrooge so it takes something special and unique to stand out amongst the crowd – and what better way to stand out than by getting the legendary Dolly Parton involved? Following the stage success of 9 to 5, here she comes again hoping to win over the West End. But will we always love anything she touches or is this one a load of humbug?
Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol takes Charles Dickens’ classic story and moves it from Victorian England into the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee during The Great Depression in 1936. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old business owner who finds himself visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner on Christmas Eve followed by three more Ghosts throughout the night. We all know the story, but the Smoky Mountain twists on it are what adds to the charm.
The story has been adapted by David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch and Curl Wollan. What it does really well is keep all the familiar elements of the story while daring to do something new with the original text. Stripped to its core, this is A Christmas Carol with all key parts of the story present (as well as past and future) but adding a dose of Southern charm to it. There is a comfort in the familiarity but also the extreme changes are so natural, they wouldn’t cause the ghost of Charles Dickens to visit the writers, forcing them to change their ways.
With Dolly Partons name on the title, you would expect a good dose of her legendary songwriting on hand here, and that is exactly what you get. While the songs can be inconsistent, they are still all of a decent enough quality, though one of the latter numbers ‘I’ve Changed’ does struggle to be taken seriously with its unashamed cheesefest and at times feels like something that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Family Guy.
Music plays an important part in the show with the silent Ghost of Christmas Future cleverly played by a violonist here. One musical highlight is the beautiful ‘Circle Of Love’ which had this miserly old Scrooge melt under its beautiful charm, while ‘Three Candles’ was another sweet standout. The act one finale ‘I’m Dreaming Of A Smoky Mountain Christmas’ tells you everything you need to know about the songs here. Cute, charming and a little bit cheesy – but if you can’t have a bit of cheese at Christmas, when can you?
While this is a story of A Christmas Carol, Robert Bathurst’s Scrooge at times feels secondary to his own story. Spending the majority of the show watching the action from the background, it feels like he has less to do than in other versions of the story and finds the spotlight yanked from under his feet by Danny Whitehead, expertly portraying Ebenezer (or Eben) in his younger years. The moments where Bathurst does take front and centre has the tendency to bring the energy down in a slightly uneven performance.
Two of the biggest roles in the show are played by the same actor as George Maguire takes on Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchit. Aside from one emotional scene in the latter part of the show, his Cratchit isn’t the most memorable of characters. However, it’s his portrayal of Jacob where he really shines. From the first appearance as his ghost in a truly Beetlejuice-esquesequence to playing him while he was still alive, Maguire gives a convincing performance as the unethical and problematic man. Playing two contrasting characters is a choice and perhaps a confusing one but this is the nature of theatre and Maguire shows fantastic versatility in both of these roles.
The entire cast are a joy to behold with the relatively small stage bursting with talent from every corner. Sarah O’Connor gets some of the most heartwarming moments as Fanny and has several chances to showcase her stunning vocals while Vicki Lee Taylor delights as Mrs Cratchit. Carole Stennett is an absolute standout as the Ghost of Christmas Past, while Samuel Sturge (sharing the role with 2 others on various performances) could melt even the coldest of hearts with his winning performance as Tiny Tim.
Alison Pollards direction expertly drives the production with some inspired choices allowing the story to really unfold to its maximum potential. A glorious set design from Scott Davis and costume design from Linda Roetheke effortlessly transports us to 1930s Tennessee, while stunning lighting from David Howe allows some clever effects, including an ingenious use of eerie lighting for the older Scrooge in the background as he’s watching his younger self.
Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is a harmless piece of fun. While it may not be the most amazing show that is out there this Christmas, it is still pleasant enough. Slightly inconsistent music and an underwhelming performance from its leading actor are more than made up for in a hugely impressive supportive cast and great production elements.
For a show that has Prohibition in the United States as part of its story, Dolly Partons Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol could have also used a bit more spirit. While it is pleasant enough and does what it sets out to do by giving the audience a couple of hours of much needed joy, this isn’t a production that will be likely to haunt your memories in the Christmases yet to come.
Catch Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre until 8th January 2023. Tickets from https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan