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Kerenza Evans reviews Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol

Music, literature, film, covid vaccines - is there anything Dolly Parton can't do? Her latest venture sees A Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol come to London's Southbank Centre: a remake of the traditional story set in the Appalachian mountains with all songs penned by the Queen of Country herself. 

In this adaptation, Scrooge is the owner of an old mining town, determined to crush the sprits of the townsfolk who are poor in wealth yet rich in community spirit. From the start, however, Scrooge seems less impenetrable than in the usual depictions. When Bob Cratchit brings Tiny Tim into work, for example, Scrooge invites Tim into his office and gruffly jokes around with him in the manner of a curmugeonly uncle.  When Scrooge asks 'Aren't you going to wish me a Merry Christmas?', Tim fires back 'I'd never wish something for you that you didn't want.' giving the impression of old pals rather than 'man' and 'boy in financial and medical ruin due to man'. An interesting take but one that somewhat reduces the element of peril throughout the production as Scrooge no longer seems ‘unreachable’.

Sentimentality, however, is where the production shines as the heartfelt score with emotive numbers such as "Appalachian Snow" and "Three Candles" champions the beauty of nature, family and Christianity. For this is, after all, a Dolly Parton musical. "Three Candles" allows us to see Scrooge through the eyes of his sister, the bond they shared and his descent from optimistic young man to embittered misanthrope.  The scenes involving young Scrooge (Danny Whitehead) and his sister (Sarah O’Connor) poignantly depict the closeness of their relationship. However, it’s tricky to conjure up goodwill for a man who would happily let people freeze to death on Christmas Eve and, let’s face it, has a Past containing no real trauma. It's also a shame Scrooge (Robert Bathurst) doesn't have more to do, his role being largely on the side, helplessly watching the past, present and future unfold. His main sole musical number 'I've Changed' lacks the emotional punch (and musicality) of the show's other numbers. 

The ghosts are updated with the Ghost of Christmas Past dolled up in clocks, the Ghost of Christmas present sporting a miner’s helmet and Marley a terrifying cross between Alex in A Clockwork Orange  and one of the Wheelers from Return to Oz. Considering the many, many adaptations of the book, it’s fun to see the story unfold with a different style.  

Ultimately, this is very much a musical for Parton fans who are keen to hear a slew of new songs with snippets of story thrown in around them.  The book plays second fiddle to the music, particularly, the literal fiddle played by the Ghost of Christmas Future (Corey Wickens) in one of the show's stand-out scenes. But this doesn't preclude the show from being extremely entertaining.  The singing, dancing and all-round enthusiasm of an undeniably talented cast is infectious and undemanding: if you're a die-hard Parton devotee, you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable evening over the festive period.    


Running until 8 January 2023. To find out more and book tickets, please head to the Southbank Centre website here.

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