NO SOONER has the final firework been ignited in celebration of the fine old English custom of flame-grilling Catholics than Yule Britannia is upon us. A tidal wave of mince pies and fake snow cascades through the shops to join the advance guard of Christmas puddings that snuck on to the shelves in September. Santa abandons his elves at their busiest time of year to embark on a hectic round of product endorsements. And "Stop the Cavalry" makes its perennial and unwelcome return. As the forces of commerce drag the start of the festive season ever closer to October, it is only right that Dickens's plea for philanthropy also gets an unseasonally early outing.
Stagings of A Christmas Carol usually take one of three forms: a "yuletide entertainment", a dark, Victorian ghost story with shades of Edgar Allen Poe, or a cautionary tale for smug fat cats and other members of the Carlton Club. But the director and adaptor, Andy Hay, shies from the easy options, and seeks instead to stage a "plea for change" which, he argues, "is not strictly about Christmas". His chosen path is a near-word-for-word presentation of Mr Dickens's writings.
As such, the production exemplifies many of the pitfalls of literary adaptation. The rhythm, flow and narrative structure of a piece of prose are usually totally different from those of a drama. Just as a concert performance is not an opera, this is not a piece of drama so much as a rehearsed reading, and while remaining true to the book, it fails to fulfil the rich visual and dramatic potential which differentiates theatre from the written word.
Mike Bearwish, a designer of outstanding flair and creativity, excels himself with the opening scene, a Victorian-alley tableau by Anton Pieck: it has the slight distortion of an early Disney scene and a metropolitan fustiness to which "Victorian" Christmas cards can only aspire. However, having exhausted himself with such a vision of loveliness, Mr Bearwish apparently took to his bed, and his influence fades like the Cheshire Cat until Scrooge is left wandering an empty stage punctuated only by black drapes. The visions of the Cratchits' and Fred's Christmas festivities are played so far back in this hangar-like space as to turn Tiny Tim into Microscopic Tim. Visibility is not aided by the fact that the Stygian gloom is chronically mis-lit, with Scrooge's feet regularly being the only subject of illumination.
Not to be outdone in this feast of maladroit technicality, the sound department arranges for the Ghost of Christmas Past to be so distorted and unethereal that it would come as no surprise to hear her announce the arrival of the 15.23 from Liverpool Street. With such a lack of technical polish, and a set so minimalist as to be non-existent, you wonder whether you haven't stumbled into the technical run by mistake.
But despite the page-bound two-dimensionality of the text and the non- dimensionality of the set, Terry Taplin produces a rounded, glowingly three-dimensional Scrooge. He manages to make believable both the choleric Inspector-Morse-like "bah humbug" days and the transformation to New Scrooge, a giggling blend of Ken Dodd and Harry Worth.
Andy Hay's desire to strip the story of chocolate-box glitz is admirable. It is unfortunate that the end product is literally, rather than metaphorically, a "dark tale".