Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol Review, Southbank Centre: The retelling of Tennessee’s Dickens packs a punch

From all versions of A Christmas song currently performing in London (I counted 11), Dolly Parton‘s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol has by far the most unusual premise: transporting Dickens’ classic story into the root world of 1930s Tennessee. Here, Ebeneezer “Eben” Scrooge (Robert Bathurst) has a gruff Southern accent, a Mr. Monolopy-esque mustache, and a heart as dark as the coal mines he owns. Cheesy? Yes. Mawkish? Maybe. Shameful? Absolutely. But there is something fun to be found along the way.

It will be Parton’s name that will attract punters carol, but they’ll 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). Despite this, her presence can be felt throughout all the music and lyrics she has written. On the strongest songs (“Appalachian Snowfall,” “Down Home Country Christmas”), you can imagine Dolly singing herself, with Sarah O’Connor serving as the perfect surrogate, from the cadence of her voice to her cheeky As-a- narcissus mannerisms.

Another distinctive Parton addition to the show is the Christian message. Well, you’d probably think that a Dickens morality story doesn’t need more Jesus-ness, but Smoky Mountain Christmas carol removes every nuance to make it crystal clear. You won’t find funnier lyrics on stage these days than the unintentionally hilarious “You know me, I’m always wishin’/ It’s so fun and it’s so Christian.” The role’s candy-sweet number, “Circle Of Love,” sounds like a god magic Parody, or perhaps the kind of song that might be performed by a youth choir led by a “cool” minister with a dangling cross earring.

On stage, the six-piece band infuses Parton’s music with even more magic. When the rustic checkered ensemble harmonizes, the sound soars – albeit a bit too loud, owing to some dodgy mic levels. While the choreography they are asked to perform is often slow and formulaic, it comes to life when elements of hoedown and country dance are incorporated.

Robert Bathurst (left) and George Maguire

(Manuel Harlan)

George Maguire stands out among the small troupe, both as the trembling Cratchit and as the damned ghost of Jacob Marley, the latter performance part of Oogie Boogie The nightmare before ChristmasShare Charlie it’s always sunny in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the effects here feel fairly trite and overwhelming, especially when compared to smoother productions by A Christmas song like the Old Vic’s.

With all the focus on the ensemble, Bathurst’s Scrooge feels like an afterthought. Given his scene-stealing role in Matt Berry’s surreal comedy Toast to London (also always in a nightgown), I had hoped for something from this spark. But no, his Scrooge is a performance based on the book, and he’s rarely busy when he’s standing on the edge of the stage looking a bit confused. I spent the show wondering why they wrote an entire musical where Scrooge doesn’t have his own song, then finally heard him sing it and it all made sense. When Bathurst joins the company in the closing number, however, it’s a fitting, happy ending. After all, isn’t forgetting the bad things what Christmas is all about?

Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol runs at the Southbank Center until January 8, 2023 Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol Review, Southbank Centre: The retelling of Tennessee’s Dickens packs a punch


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