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Review: A Christmas Carol at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Hi-jinks on the high seas (Moby Dick), Greek tragedy meets David Bowie spandex (Oedipussy) and a bloody journey through the complete deaths in Shakespeare.

Spymonkey’s theatrical tastes and tales may be catholic, but they share one thing. They’re always glorious – and gloriously unpredictable.

And so to the comedy quartet’s current production, a unique telling of Dickens’ festive favourite which marries pathos and panto, silliness and sensibility in one irresistible Christmas confection that showcases both the company’s anarchic spirit and attention to detail.

Scrooge (Toby Park) and his lowly clerk Bob Cratchit (Sophie Russell) are introduced in a visually striking opening scene which starts in all seriousness but degenerates, incrementally, in to carefully-timed haplessness, accompanied by original music that marries Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and klezmer in one melodic whole.

A Christmas Carol. Photos by Johan Persson

Pantomimes traditionally song-check some of the biggest sounds of the year. Here, Spymonkey and their three-strong band mix original tunes with a touch of Queen, an unexpected rendition of Radiohead’s atmospheric No Surprises, and a homage to Keith Harris and Orville.

While Park mostly sticks to Scrooge in all his many manifestations, the rest of the roles are shared out by Russell, Petra Massey and Aitor Basauri, a collection of shifting characters that hit a chaotic crescendo when we finally peek inside the Cratchits’ cramped family home.

The fourth wall slides up and down as merrily as the action shifts from Dickens’ serious message of love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness, to the spectacle of mistimed cues, moving sets, Cuban mafiosos, and bitter complaints about theatrical billing.

There are a couple of occasions where the action threatens to jump the shark.

And as mentioned, one of the many facets of a Spymonkey performance is its unpredictability – so it’s a shame to crowbar a rather predictable Brexit mention in to Dickensian proceedings.

But all in all, this is A Christmas Carol to join in lustily – and with a glass of Christmas cheer in hand.

Aitor Basauri as Dickens. Photo by Johan Persson

What would its author (the real one, not Basauri’s wing-haired master of ceremonies who appears in front of the velvet curtain at the start of both halves) have made of it all?

One hopes the showman in him would have been both flattered and amused.

After all, in 1852, when Dickens performed at the old Philharmonic Hall as an actor in his own farce, one witness reported: “A large majority of the ladies and gentlemen who attended…will count the entertainment as one of the most pleasing, sparkling and mirth-provoking which it was their good fortune to witness.”

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