UNCLE EBENEZER A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), London SW11
Opened 6 December, 2000

The Phil Willmott musical for Christmas has become one of the highlights of BAC's annual schedule since 1997's revelatory The Sound Of Music. However, this year Willmott tackles not a classic show but a creation of his own. Not that Uncle Ebenezer A Christmas Carol is exactly unfamiliar territory, either in terms of story or tunes; Willmott writes several new lyrics, but utilises melodies ranging from Prokofiev and "The Hall Of The Mountain King" to "Knocked 'Em In The Old Kent Road" and a whole clutch of carols.

Paradoxically, like Christmas pop singles, the fun feels a little forced here; all the seasonal buttons are hit, but there's an air of calculation about matters rather than the sense of sheer enjoyment that pervaded its predecessors. What there is, though, is an exhilarating inventiveness in material and staging. The familiar story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly visitations is here narrated as a Christmas Eve tale to his family by Scrooge's nephew, who has more than a touch of Dickens about him as he mutates from crusading journalist into storyteller with a social conscience. A wonderfully, chaotically eerie sequence in which ghosts flit all over the BAC stage resolves into the appearance of Jacob Marley, a shimmering six-puppeteer agglomeration of limbs each of which had only seconds earlier been a ghost in itself, so that a grotesquely elongated head inverts to become one of Marley's feet and so on. The rendition of "In The Bleak Midwinter", almost Blakean in its celebration of honest toil, is balanced by a Christmas hymn to Adam Smith from the exploitative upper classes.

As Scrooge, William Maxwell is never in danger of not being redeemed: he rumbles and blusters, but in a manner which is endearing rather than repulsive. Maxwell does his best to disguise his musical limitations, but they do keep poking through, emphasised by the occasional galumphing line such as "And there's the ongoing fight with disease" in his too-unsubtle song of recantation at the end. Bill Ward makes an efficient and lively narrator as Scrooge's nephew, but as ever this is an ensemble piece, as Willmott and choreographer Jack Gunn whirl a couple of dozen actors across a stage in the round barely big enough to accommodate them all in the first place. As Willmott's Tiny Tim observes in an unfathomable and jarring misquotation, God bless us, one and all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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