Of all the versions of A Christmas Carol currently being staged in London (I’ve counted 11), Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol has by far the most unusual premise: transporting Dickens’ classic tale to the rootin’-tootin’ world of 1930s Tennessee. Here, Ebeneezer “Eben” Scrooge (Robert Bathurst) has a gruff southern drawl, a Mr Monolopy-esque moustache and a heart as dark as the coal mines he owns. Cheesy? Yep. Mawkish? Maybe. Cringeworthy? Oh, absolutely. But there’s some fun to be found along the way.
It’ll be Parton’s name that draws punters to this Christmas Carol, but they will most likely leave disappointed – the queen of country only appears in voice form at the beginning to remind us to turn off our phones (something they didn’t have in those simpler Tennessee times, she quips). That said, her presence is felt throughout the music and lyrics she’s penned. In the strongest songs (“Appalachian Snowfall”, “Down Home Country Christmas”), you can imagine Dolly herself is singing, with Sarah O’Connor serving as a perfect stand-in, from the cadence of her voice to her perky-as-a-daffodil mannerisms.
Another unmistakably Parton addition to the show is the Christian message. Now, you’d probably think a Dickens morality tale wouldn’t need more Jesus-ness, but Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol strips away any nuance to make it crystal clear. You won’t find a funnier lyric on the stage right now than the unintentionally hilarious: “You know me, I’m always wishin’/ It’s so fun and it’s so Christian.” The most saccharine number of the lot, “Circle Of Love”, sounds like a Godspell parody, or perhaps the kind of song that could be performed by a youth choir led by a “cool” vicar with a dangly cross earring.
On stage, the six-piece band imbue Parton’s music with even more magic. When the ensemble, clad in rustic plaid, harmonises, the sound soars – although a little too loudly, due to some dodgy microphone levels. While the choreography they’re given to perform is often slow and formulaic, it comes to life when hoedown and country dancing elements are integrated.
Among the small company, George Maguire is a stand-out, as both a shaking Cratchit and the damned ghost of Jacob Marley, the latter performance part Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas, part Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the effects here feel pretty hokey and underwhelming, especially when compared to slicker productions of A Christmas Carol like the Old Vic’s.
With all the focus on the ensemble, Bathurst’s Scrooge feels like something of an afterthought. Given his scene-stealing role in Matt Berry’s surreal comedy Toast of London (also always wearing a nightshirt), I had been hoping for some of that same spark here. But no, his Scrooge is a by-the-book portrayal and he’s rarely given much to do bar stand at the side of the stage looking a bit bewildered. I spent the show wondering why they’d written an entire musical in which Scrooge doesn’t have his own song, then finally heard him sing and it all made sense. Still, when Bathurst joins the company in the closing number, it’s a fitting, joyous end. After all, isn’t forgetting the bad stuff what Christmas is all about?
‘Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’ runs at the Southbank Centre until 8 January 2023