To be simultaneously likeable and hateful, traditional and modern, tragic and funny is a wonderful thing. And in this loving and irreverent version of Dickens's essential seasonal tale all these opposites are embodied by Jim Broadbent's delicious Scrooge. As literature's peerless party-pooper, the Oscar-winning actor manages that rare trick of being nasty enough for us to want his comeuppance and sympathetic enough to care about his fate.
True, Dickens deserves at least some of the credit for this. When his Ghost of Christmas Past - a waxen Amelia Bullmore with white hair like whipped ice cream - takes the old miser back to his childhood, his mean-spiritedness is explained by the infinitely meaner school master (a hilariously sadistic Keir Charles) in whose cruel care the poor Scrooge was left after his mother died. But don't worry, he's still a bastard. And yet, with Broadbent, you can almost hear the cracking of Scrooge's frozen soul when he sees how his younger self was mistreated. Later, when the old loan shark, who is as miserly with sympathy as he is with money, hears of the fate of Tiny Tim, played by a pitifully lame puppet, the sneer softens and the eyes betray a fathom-deep regret.
It's a wonderful performance, and it's beautifully supported by the evening's other big star - the production itself. Directed by Phelim McDermott, the show's look is probably best described as a giant pop-up Victorian Christmas Card. Dickensian London is evoked with exquisitely painted scenery flats carried on by bowler hatted stage hands in brown coats. Dickensian snow is chucked around the place, and into faces, like confetti. And, when Scrooge refers to the quaint Dickensian scene through his window, it turns out the view is attached to the glass. But the real visual fun starts with the spirits, especially Samantha Spiro's bawdy Ghost of Christmas Present, a spectre whose previous life on this earth must have surely been disreputably spent on the boards of London's music halls.
The playful mind through which Dickens's classic has been filtered belongs to Patrick Barlow, the main man behind The National Theatre of Brent comedy duo (other halves have been played by various actors including Broadbent) and also the writer of the West End comedy version of The 39 Steps.
Barlow is the antidote to serious theatre. Which is not to say that his work is anything other than seriously good. His versions of classics are always as much homages as they are mickey takes, and at work here there is a healthy instinct to subvert theatrical conventions - hence the chucked snow and also the kind of stage-craft that is good enough to spark the imagination and bad enough to laugh at.
There is one moment where Barlow's script subverts his play almost to its own destruction. Scrooge is told that he can't achieve redemption not just because of his refusal to learn the lessons of his ghostly trips across time, but because he is in a play. See? They're even clearing away the props.
Once played, this is the kind of Pirandello-esque trick that makes you wonder if the evening can ever generate another sincere emotion. But true to an evening of complimentary opposites, the tears and laughter continue to come.