Review: A reworked Christmas Carol with a message that’s never been more apt

Bah humbug! Not for long as The Rose Theatre has put a modern twist on the classic storytelling of the true meaning of Christmas. This time, women are leading the way, but children are the future. 

The Dickens’ tale has been reworked by the Olivier Award-winning writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. It hasn’t lost any of its charm, but the themes of kindness and generosity speak a little louder this year as the UK faces a cost of living crisis. The production has the perfect amount of hope, magic and Christmas wishes to make you escape reality and even be a little more prepared to face it again when the curtain falls.

In this retelling, the first thing to know is women and children are in charge. Ebenezer Scrooge and Charles (Charlie) Dickens have been recast as women and are played by Penny Layden and Elexi Walker respectively. Both capture the essence of their characters but the Rose Young Company treading the boards alongside them cannot be overlooked. The Rose is certainly training future stars and some are already capable of holding their own against seasoned professionals.

A Christmas Carol at the Rose Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet

I must pick out an unexpected star of the show from the Young Company which was Maud played by Lily Rowell on Thursday. Maud is one of scores of children excited for Christmas only to be told there is no money coming from the school’s benefactor Scrooge.

Rowell plays a character wise beyond her years. She wants magic for Christmas and Dickens (Walker) arrives in a puff of smoke to make it happen. Rowell bounces off Walker and leads the children as they help Dickens bring some magic into their lives and some Christmas spirit to Scrooge (Layden). 

The Christmas spirit might be in short supply for the star of Dickens’ play Scrooge, but it is palpable across the theatre thanks to nostalgic decorations and carols. The smell of prosecco wafts through the crowds of couples and families enjoying the soft notes of members of the Rose Young Company singing the 12 days of Christmas before Scrooge puts an abrupt end to the merriment with the infamous line “Bah Humbug!”

Layden, who is accredited with performances in the West End production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paradise manages to draw animosity, sympathy and finally hope from the audience as the story unfolds. She throws herself into the retelling and the inspired set design by Frankie Bradshaw including an aerial hoop swinging across the stage which Scrooge clings to as the ghosts teach her to change her ways. 

The ghost of Christmas present visits Scrooge. Photo: Mark Douet

The score, by the multi award-winning composer and lyricist Eamonn O’Dwyer opens the show with a bang. The first number, ‘Ragged’, captures the audience and they’re hooked until the very end. The skilled choreography of Olivia Shouler is best shown during ‘Tock Tick’ performed by Dickens and Young Company. They cover the stage with ease and have such impeccable timing that your eyes follow the cast with ease. 

The effortless relationship between the cast means the small details that take the show a step above your average Christmas show are there for everyone to see. The use of chalk to create the clock face on the stage connotes the classroom the retelling was born from. It’s a subtle but powerful reminder that the children are leading the story. These details perfectly build up to the final message that children are the future and can create real change.

As always, the cast gathers for the final number. Even Scrooge is overcome and adds her voice to the uplifting piece ‘Magic!’ The song ends the show with a serious message that it’s never too late to change and children are the ones who can correct the mistakes and greed of adults like Scrooge. The choreography is again receptive to the message as the children begin to direct the adults on stage.

While the narrative is one that’s been performed countless times, it is undeniable the message still resonates with audiences. More than that, the reworking has the perfect amount of Christmas magic and serious undertones that audiences of all ages know they’ve seen something special. In the run up to a difficult Christmas, for many, this is the best Christmas present theatre can offer.

A Christmas Carol is showing at The Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, until January 2.

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