Review by Sam Waite
I won't speak for anyone else’s Yuletide experiences, but I've found two things to be true of the holiday season. Somewhere, probably many places in fact, a production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol will be staged, and someone, probably many people, will get just a little too drunk. Combining both of these festive traditions, the good folks at Sh*t-Faced Showtime offer another run of A Pissedmas Carol at London’s Leicester Square Theatre.
For those uninitiated, the Sh*t-Faced concept – originally used for abridged productions of Shakespeare's plays – has a troupe of professional, highly skilled performers take on a classic text, having given one cast member an inadvisable amount of alcohol beforehand. To add to the chaos, selected audience members can make the evening’s host give the drunkard another drink, and the rest of the ensemble are tasked with working their off-script ramblings into the story. Of course, the actors are given opportunities to rest their hungover heads, with a rotating cast ensuring that the roles are all covered, and no one is stumbling dehydrated and miserable about the stage.
With a truly trolled John Mitton as Scrooge for this run’s press night, it took only moments for madness to ensue. James Murfitt, the emcee-cum-drunk-wrangler for the press night show, adapted Dickens’ text alongside Lewis Ironside. Appearing as the classic author, Murfitt began the evening with the kind of bawdy humour one expects from these shows: “My name is Charles Dickens, which is old English for, ‘Yes, you can see the outline of my penis in these trousers.’” Not the last time genitals are the butt of the joke, Murfitt and Ironaide’s script is briskly paced (when performed properly, as it rarely is) and allows for a great deal of comedy even from the stone-cold sober actors. Double entendres and the inclusion of an audience member for two key moments kept the energy up even when Mitton needed to be pulled aside to let the scene conclude.
A jukebox musical of sorts, with a scattering of holiday classics and one or two non-festive pop offerings thrown in, musical director Charlotte Brooke was on stage through much of the show, reacting to the goings on as well as providing musical accompaniment. There are some splendid singers among the cast, particularly the hefty belt of Katy Baker, not only a fine actor and singer but a strong director, another cast member moonlighting as a member of the creative team – her obvious rapport with the cast and willingness to embrace the collaborative nature gives the production a clear and easy to follow structure, while allowing for the improvisation required to match drunken tangents.
All involved are fine actors, and I was particularly impressed by Mitton’s dedication to the newly rewritten, by himself on the spot, version of Scrooge he’d chosen to embody. His choices were, understandably, manic and hard to comprehend at times, but his level of commitment and determination to nail certain scenes was certainly admirable. The remainder of the marvellous ensemble rolled with the many, many punches and maintained their characterisations and acting choices throughout despite the rewrites they were forced to incorporate in the spot. Off the cuff references to Harry Potter and Stranger Things became running motifs in this Dickensian tale, and somehow no one corpsed or broke character when faced with an increasingly erratic leading man.
Key to the Sh*t-Faced conceit is the text itself actually holding up, and the production surrounding it to actually be, if on the lower-budget side of things, reasonably well-presented. Set design from Nikola Jones is suitably atmospheric, a handful of furniture pieces and some attractive backdrops used to great effect without distracting from the already focus-pulling actor detailing the evening’s performance. Likewise, the costumes from Lucy Fowler are attractive, well-constructed, and were the immersion not continually (and often deliberately) broken, they would be a major element of our being brought into a time long ago.
The effectiveness of Jess Davies’ simple lighting design, largely keeping the whole stage lit and utilising spotlights for key moments of what could, less inebriated, be affecting moments of drama, was brought to life by the off-script diatribe of Mitton’s Scrooge, commenting on losing track of his spotlights and ruining scenes during tech runs. Though seemingly another moment of comedically out of the blue observation, this really did bring to the crowd’s attention quite how important Davies’ work is to the tone of the show… or at least the tone intended in the writing, before the leading man downed mini bottles of wine and half a bottle of bourbon.
A brilliant night out that blurs the lines of improv comedy and traditional theatre, perhaps the only major criticism of A Pissedmas Carol would come from anyone hoping to genuinely appreciate the story itself. With the opening five-minute scene having taken four times that length to get through, your enjoyment of the Sh*t-Faced Showtime repertoire is entirely dependent on your tolerance for a sloshed actor repeatedly ruining otherwise solid storytelling, but I'd hope before arriving you'd be aware that this is central to proceedings. Luckily, the press night crowd were more than accepting of these shenanigans, even encouraging more with their reactions, and, again, anyone booking to see a Sh*t-Faced show will hopefully know what they're in for!
Festive fun that feels like a labour of love from close collaborators, A Pissedman Carol demonstrates why it continues to be an annual tradition for many, bringing a sense of joy and conspiratorial joy to another season at the Leicester Square Theatre. Giving us touches of pantomime, risqué comedy, and even heartfelt family drama, this take on Dickens’ classic may be just the thing to give even the most curmudgeonly of grinches a taste of the Christmas spirit… or just an excuse to not feel bad for being drunk in a theatre. Hey, if Scrooge is off his face, why can't I have a mulled wine or six?!
Sh*t-Fqced Showtime: A Pissedman Carol plays at the Leicester Square Theatre until January 6th
For tickets and information visit https://www.leicestersquaretheatre.com/show/sht-faced-showtime-a-pissedmas-carol/
Photos by Rah Petherbridge Photography, from the show’s 2019 run