First published in The Times, Monday December 19 2016
One might have assumed that Pitlochry Festival Theatre had exhausted the available supply of festive-themed musicals, following productions in recent years of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street as well as a couple of outings for the company’s masterful staging of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It was perhaps inevitable that the theatre in the hills would eventually get around to mounting this chirrupy version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, based on the 1970 film that starred Albert Finney as the titular moneylender.
Unlike that other, enduring musical adaptation of Dickens, Oliver!, Leslie Bricusse’s score contains no breakout numbers, and with a couple of notable exceptions (I Like Life and Thank You Very Much), no tunes catchy enough to still be whirling around in your head in the foyer afterwards. The soundtrack is a mix of treacly sentiment and music hall oom-pah-pah, with the songs bearing overbearingly pithy titles such as I Hate People and It’s Not My Fault.
Thankfully, Richard Baron’s production makes a good fist of restoring some of the darker, spookier edges of Dickens’s famous morality tale. The set, designed by Adrian Rees, captures the cramped, dank surrounds of Scrooge’s office and rooms. The encounters with the ghosts are atmospherically staged, and there are a couple of poignant moments among the miser’s various glimpses at what was and what might have been.
Baron has also gathered around him a fine, 16-strong cast most of them tackling multiple roles and all switching adeptly between the dramatic scenes and big ensemble musical numbers, choreographed by Chris Stuart-Wilson and backed by a tight, ten-piece band, led by Dougie Flower, the musical director. The show may not flinch from Dickens’s portrayal of want and poverty, but it also delivers plenty of festive sparkle and exuberance.
In the lead role, Philip Rham, while not the most gifted singer in the company, does make a convincing journey from misanthrope to repentant sinner, giddy with his newfound lust for life. As you would expect from a Dickens adaptation, there are treats further down the cast list, including Christopher Price’s formidable Ghost of Christmas Present, Dougal Lee, channelling Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice as Marley, and Lee Dillon-Stuart, as Tom Jenkins, giving a splendid rendition of Thank You Very Much, the one song in the line-up that might ring a few Christmas bells with the audience.