REVIEW: A Christmas Carol, Chichester Festival Theatre, until January 2.

Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge (Brendan Lyle). Photo by Mike Eddowes
Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge (Brendan Lyle). Photo by Mike Eddowes
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Chichester Festival Youth Theatre celebrate their 30th anniversary this year – and they do so in style, with almost certainly the finest show I’ve seen them give in 20 years of watching.

Of course, it helps immeasurably that they’ve been given the greatest Christmas story of all (or maybe, the second greatest), but it’s what they do with it that counts.

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation is imaginative and sensitive, beautifully true to the spirit of the original; Jason Carr combines wit and emotional oomph with his music and lyrics; and directors Dale Rooks and Jake Smith marshall their troops to perfection.

But when the show begins, it’s the young actors that bring Charles Dickens’ genius story to life, and they do so magnificently in a show which is all the better for its relative brevity; there is absolutely no fat here, most definitely not a single weak link anywhere.

Instead we get a cracking story wonderfully well told and delivered with maximum impact.

Set designer Simon Higlett, costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight and lighting designer James Whiteside give the cast the tools; with them they weave a piece of Christmas magic, the ultimate tale of redemption, as Lavery says, the tale of a man who’s made so many wrong choices you can’t help but feel sorry for him.

Liam Wright and Brendan Lyle alternate in the role of Scrooge. On Monday night, it was Lyle’s turn, and he rose to the challenge superbly, just a hint of Alastair Sim in the stoop and some of the intonation. Lyle conveys the miser beautifully and also gives us the reformed party animal very nicely indeed; but his skill is in the imperceptible steps in between, and here Lyle is terrific. Scrooge plays mostly a watching role, but Lyle captures impressively the effect that watching has on the man.

But maybe the night’s biggest revelation for those of us (OK, I admit it) who like to think we really, really can’t see the point of puppetry is just how brilliantly the puppets are used. Marley, voiced by Fred Davis, is an inspired, hugely-skilled creation; and so too is the Ghost of Christmas Past, voiced by Poppy Baskomb.

When it comes, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is every bit as chilling as you’d hope. And with Christmas Present (Romina Hytten) in between, they melt the heart of the world’s worst skinflint in a tale of colour, passion and biting relevance. There’s no one alive who wouldn’t do well to reflect on Dickens’ great humanitarian message – a message finely served on the CFT stage this Christmas.

This isn’t just a question of “It’s Christmas, shove the kids on.” This is a show which could very comfortably sit alongside the year’s professional productions.

Phil Hewitt

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