God bless them every one

THEATRE A Christmas Carol, Lyric, Hammersmith
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The Independent Culture
Charles Dickens himself made a fortune doing solo readings from A Christmas Carol, so it is hardly surprising to find theatres turning his well-loved tale of Yuletide redemption into a Christmas show. A couple of years back, the RSC threw their resources at a grandiose staging but, despite some beautiful designs, it never rose above sentimentality, and Leslie Bricusse's musical version, Scrooge, is currently playing in a rickety, inept production at London's Dominion Theatre.

Neil Bartlett's new version at the Lyric Hammersmith is considerably more slimline but, paradoxically, it's far richer. Bartlett is the last person you expect to espouse Victorian values but one glance at the poster announcing Mr Richard Briers gives you a glimpse of what you're in for. Not that he has suddenly taken up authentic performance practice. He sticks to Victorian style, but plays it with contemporary theatrical storytelling techniques and Nineties anachronistic flourishes. The bustling townsfolk push supermarket trolleys and the excellent seven-strong ensemble switch costume, role and gender with consummate ease, wearing trainers beneath their frock coats and crinolines. It must be mayhem backstage as they rush behind the scenes to pop up as chorus, carollers and a multiplicity of characters. The performance I saw quelled a noisy audience of children into a (mostly) rapt silence, a testament to the atmosphere of clarity and concentration flowing between the cast and their public; no small feat considering Bartlett's risky decision to stick with the Victorian phraseology of Dickens's original.

Bartlett knows that effective story-telling is the key and he strips everything down to preserve it. Carol-singing is used to tie scenes together but Chris Mellor's arrangements avoid the obvious, cloying cadences of traditional harmonies; gone, too, is the sickly sentimentality that tends to lurk around the Cratchits. Briers abandons his trademark niceness to present a powerfully mean-spirited Scrooge. Most actors signal the happy ending from the word go, going about their nastiness with a nudge and a wink, but Briers never slips into cosiness. As a result, his journey is properly moving, his outburst of happiness genuinely joyous.

Designer Rae Smith uses an austere palette of sombre black and blinding white which explodes into colour with the arrival of the ghost of Christmas Present. The basic black box set proves hugely evocative as faces pop out of walls like an animated advent calendar, or a nostalgic vista of a snowbound childhood opens out across the night sky. She is aided and abetted by Paule Constable, who etches figures in scalding hard edges and catches wonderfully evocative snowfalls in shafts of cold, wintry light.

"The greatest success in the pudding line you have ever achieved," announces Bob Cratchit. The pace may flag at times, and occasionally you yearn for something a touch more frightening, but Bartlett and his shivering cast conjure up all the chills you need in this equally successful evening.

To 18 Jan. Booking: 0181-741 2311