If Vic and Bob wrote a panto and had it produced by the League of Gentleman and performed by the cast of Big Train, it would probably look a bit like Spymonkey’s Christmas Carol.
Not exactly like it, however. This new production, which has just begun a month-long residency at Liverpool’s refurbished Playhouse theatre, is not entirely like anything else I’ve seen before on stage or screen. Combining traditional Dickensian dialogue with karaoke renditions of Blondie’s Heart of Glass; Victorian music hall aesthetic with a man wearing an inflatable turkey costume, this is a genuinely inventive, weird, funny, and enjoyable one-off from a small company who have built a formidable international reputation for outlandish physical comedy.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste. There are elements of the absurd, such as the Ghost of Christmas Past’s illuminated cone head and Jacob Marley’s entirely unnecessary flappy puppet hands, that are either laugh-out-loud hilarious or just plain odd, depending on your sense of humour. You would need to be a real Scrooge, however, to keep a straight face during Aitor Basauri’s Spanish-accented cameos as Dickens himself, or his ludicrous perambulations around the stage on a hover board hidden under his Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes. Basauri, a master clown, would have stolen the show entirely amid a lesser cast, but Toby Park was suitably malevolent and snivelling as Scrooge, while Petra Massey and Sophie Russell brought mischief and wit to their multiple roles.
There were some bum notes – though not from the choir of volunteers who somehow kept straight faces during their rendition of Radiohead’s No Surprises at the close of act one. An earnest speech about the need for a “love revolution” was weirdly out of kilter with the irreverent tone of the rest of Ed Gaughan’s production; the Ghost of Christmas Future’s ‘motivational tapes’ were just not that funny, and a Kevin Spacey reference felt unnecessary. But for the most part, the action careered helter-skelter from one enjoyable set piece to another, aided and abetted by a multi-faceted live band and Alice Power’s two-tier set that looked pleasingly like an old-fashioned toy theatre. It was akin to a surrealist festive sketch show that had been loosely cohered into a version of a famous play. And despite being based on a well-worn classic, this Christmas Carol is a blast of highly entertaining and original comic theatre, at a time of year rich in re-hashing and commercially-safe repetition. The Playhouse should be applauded for staging it, and Spymonkey cheered for being bonkers enough to conjure something new out of such oft-repeated fodder.
Photos by Johan Persson
A Christmas Carol is at the Liverpool Playhouse until January 12, 2019. Suitable for ages 12+