Theatre reviews: A Christmas Carol, Dundee Rep | Cinderella, King's Theatre, Glasgow

Dundee Rep and Noisemaker’s co-production of A Christmas Carol is an inspired piece of ensemble work, writes Joyce McMillan
A Christmas Carol at Dundee Rep PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanA Christmas Carol at Dundee Rep PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
A Christmas Carol at Dundee Rep PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

A Christmas Carol, Dundee Rep *****

Cinderella, King’s Theatre, Glasgow ****

Will Tiny Tim die? It’s a question that only gathers resonance with the years, in a world that long since returned to "Victorian values” when it comes to caring more for money than for human lives. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Dundee Rep’s 2021 version of A Christmas Carol – co-produced with Noisemaker, also known as writer-composers Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie – packs a tremendous emotional punch, presented as it is by a superb 12-strong company based on Scotland’s only permanent acting ensemble.

At first, it’s hard to grasp what’s going on, as the cast appear in drab rehearsal clothes in front of a heap of packing cases, and pretend that they’ve forgotten to rehearse a show; there’s a slightly overlong dither of meta-theatrical jokery, and a tendency throughout – when condensing the narrative – to reduce Dickens’s mighty prose to something relatively flat-footed.

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The pay-off, though, comes in the instant live connection with the audience that emerges from this approach to the tale – Brecht with a Dundee accent, if you like – as the cast read from the pages of the original book, and begin to piece together the yarn. Noisemaker’s songs and music pulse through the show from the outset, offering what must be one of the strongest and most heartfelt musical responses to A Christmas Carol since Leslie Bricusse’s 1970 score for Scrooge; and by the time a wee boy with a singing voice like an angel emerges from the audience to play Tiny Tim, the audience is rapt, and many are in tears.

At the centre of the story, Ewan Donald (only 43, he indignantly informs us) makes an unusually youthful Scrooge, whose emergence as a changed man, beautifully scrubbed in his best Christmas suit, offers hope of a long and joyful better future; and Emily Winter is a strikingly eloquent and elegant ghost of Christmas Past, in the style of Edith Evans.

Essentially, though, this is an inspired piece of ensemble work, beautifully directed by Andrew Panton, where every element of its success depends on all the others; and when, after an enthralling 85 minutes, the audience surge to their feet in a standing ovation, it’s hard not to imagine the ghost of Charles Dickens cheering with us somewhere up beyond, happy in the knowledge that in this version at least, his tremendous story has hit hard, and truly hit home.

Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, the big pantomime at the King’s conjures up the pure joy of a long-delayed family reunion, as a tremendous team led by Elaine C Smith and Johnny Mac present a gorgeous traditional Cinderella, complete with flying white horses that attract shrieks of excitement from the audience, as they carry Cinders’s pumpkin coach off to the ball. Like Edinburgh’s Sleeping Beauty, this Cinderella is produced by Crossroads Pantomimes, the successor company to Qdos; and like Sleeping Beauty, it survives on a decidedly un-poetic script by Alan McHugh, which sadly replaces the much-loved final song-sheet with a sadistic nonsense game in which everyone gets to bash Buttons.

For nine-tenths of the time, though, this good-looking, funny and spectacular panto delivers exactly what Glasgow needs for this second Covid Christmas, including plenty of Glasgow jokes, Elaine C Smith’s Fairy Godmother in spectacular form, and a world-class Dandini in the astonishing Darren Brownlie; once the pride of the Tron panto, but now promoted to a key role in the big show that rightly calls itself “the Fairy Godmother of all pantos” – at least here in Scotland, and in this special year.

A Christmas Carol is at Dundee Rep until 31 December, live streamed online on 12 December; Cinderella is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 2 January

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