God in Ruins, Soho Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This year, two major theatres are presenting vivid variants of A Christmas Carol. I feel sorry for Anthony Neilson's God in Ruins, an often outrageously funny RSC commission now playing at the Soho Theatre. It has had the bad luck of opening shortly after Ikrismas Kherol, a deeply affecting version at the Young Vic that relocates Dickens's story in the townships of contemporary South Africa. Both shows have their own vision and creative integrity and explore quite different potentialities in the original. It's all too predictable, though, that Ikrismas Kherol will be used as a stick with which to beat God in Ruins.

Neilson reinvents Scrooge as a sozzled, scabrously self-hating TV producer in his mid-thirties. He's the kind of "creative" who is perpetually postponing work on the novel that would reflect the real him in favour of hack projects he despises in his case demeaning reality TV programmes (Guantanamo Gay; Chimp Monastery).

Played with a rather winning dishevelled perplexity by Brian Doherty, our anti-hero, Brian Wilkins, has become his own vicious circle from which (while feeling that he's the one who's been banished) he has excluded his estranged wife and teenage daughter.

To adapt a line by Yeats, the Christmas season is no country for thirtysomething men with no family hearths to go to. Neilson seems to be magnetised to this territory, having delivered a couple of revisionist Yuletide pieces from his disreputable Santa sack in the recent past. God in Ruins was developed with this crack cast of male actors while they were performing a rep of Macbeth and Ionesco's Macbett in Stratford. The result is sharper in terms of ensemble vigour than in terms of tightness of script.

Teasing musical numbers loners gathering, say, for a fantasy of coke-snorting seasonal male solidarity in a druggy rethink of "Let it Snow" have more impact than the sometimes dramaturgy. For example, I never really believed that Brian would be pinning his authorial ambitions on the alternative cynical rewrite of A Christmas Carol that keeps obtruding, self-reflexively, on his befuddled dreams. And the ending, with Man restored as the measure of all things, feels rushed and only semi-sincere.

But as always with Neilson, the comedy pushes to unsettlingly novel regions. This must be the first "recognition scene" in world drama where a dad has located his daughter on a "Second Life" website where she is pretending to be a man. Recommended.

To 5 January (0870 429 6883)

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