Scrooge, Palladium, London

A lavish dose of Christmas schmaltz for Dickens' miser
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The Independent Culture

The author, lyricist and composer of Scrooge is Leslie Bricusse, the late Anthony Newley's old collaborator - maybe it's "Bricusse" he's a Londoner that we love London so; and, now I can get all the bad jokes out of the way at once - you simply cannot make something out of nothing, or make "Bricusse" without straw.

For while this is perfectly reasonable seasonal entertainment, it is struck through with mediocre intentions. Good manners and benevolent instincts win the day, which is not exactly Charles Dickens's original point, though not too deviant a suggestion. In his mid-19th century Christmas stories, Dickens invented the Victorian festivity that still holds, but he also suggested a process of redemption through fear and intimidation.

Where Bricusse's finally flaccid musical - a 1970 film starring Albert Finney, then a stage vehicle for Newley in the mid-1990s - joins hands with Dickens is in its unapologetic sentimentality. And there are scary bits, as when the appalling grey figure of old Jacob Marley (delightfully camp Barry Howard, he of Hi-De-Hi! fame) materialises behind a closed door, having first appeared like a hologram in the knocker.

The greatest feat of resuscitation, though, is that of Tommy Steele as Scrooge, a grinning hobbledehoy with a completely unconvincing nasty streak and a longing for the limelight. Lank-haired and trim as a butcher's dog, Steele reclaims the Palladium stage as of right. He is, after all, the longest-serving headline performer in this hallowed arena and has paid his dues from being Britain's first rock and roller to becoming its pre-eminent musical theatre icon.

You might have an argument with me at this point about Michael Crawford. Crawford moved on a bit when the musical theatre moved on with Lloyd Webber. Steele is still cheeky chappie, cockney knees-up style. But he also represents a common denominator in family entertainment concomitant with the Palladium's role in the capital's popular art form of pantomime and seasonal shows.

Scrooge opens as the Christmas lights go on in Regent Street. This year, they are a rather austere array of white stellar flashes on a crepuscular blue background. Nothing gaudy or cheap. So Scrooge is providing a perfect antidote, with its opening Quality Street box of a Christmas carols medley and its pictorial street scene of lanterns, chestnut stalls and mutton-chop whiskers.

Dickens provided the structure for a show with the visitations of the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future - the Present phantom is a wonderfully medieval Bacchus in the shape of James Head - and Bob Tomson's well-worn but efficient and passably spectacular production (also revived this winter in Bristol and Oxford starring Shane Ritchie) is given a real charge of adrenalin by the star and the big, willing cast.

Bricusse writes good theatre music, in that he knows how to move scenes along and touch the dramatic highlight, but none of it really grabs you. That there is nothing more nauseating than a happy family at Christmas may be a sentiment to be applauded, but the vision of the Cratchits, playing down Scrooge's nastiness to them, paid off with a giant turkey, is probably not the happy ending we want or expect nowadays. Glyn Kerslake's Bob and Laurence Belcher's Tiny Tim nonetheless play cleverly on our heart strings and tear ducts.