Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol: A Festive Fiasco (bring wine)
In one of the more camp events to hit the London theatre scene this Christmas – which is saying something when Ian McKellen is in panto – Dolly Parton arrives at the Southbank with her Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.
It’s a story we all know but this time set in Tennessee, Dolly’s much-loved mountain home, with as much ‘rootin’ and ‘tootin’ as you can shake your jingle bells at. The set and staging is beautiful, and the songs (though there aren’t many, it’s just the same handful repeated for the most part) are toe-tappingly pleasing and delivered with great gusto by a cast eager to please.
Beyond the pleasantries though, this show is not good. It is, in fact, actively bad. It is the Hallmark Movie of festive theatre productions. Despite everyone’s commitment to having a good time, this has more rough edges than Scrooge has humbugs – the accents are all over the place, the choreography is pedestrian, and the whole thing could be about half an hour shorter.
It must be said there are some wonderful turns, the acting is upbeat, and Olivier award-winner George Maguire’s flamboyant turn as Jacob Marley is a stand-out portrayal. The cast presents itself with an emphatic and infectious glee, and there are plenty of chuckles along the way.
Often, though, the story it’s trying to tell doesn’t match up with what the rest of your senses are telling you. Everyone’s dying, everyone is poor, Scrooge’s past present and future are bleak, but all of this will fly over your head when delivered with whatever darn-tooting accent has been chosen for this particular line.
At one point we were told that seven people had died and the US Army had been brought in, which almost gave the audience whiplash as they tried to marry it with the non-stop hoedown the line was sandwiched between.
“It’s two o’clock, the clock has just struck two,” says Scrooge, in just one example of a piece simultaneously over and underwritten as it tries to slam together a Dickens classic and a Parton playlist. At one point we find Ebeneezer speaking to a violin in a way one would converse with a clanger (this was the ghost of Christmas Future). I don’t know either, nobody in the audience did.
None of it works. It has the air of a fever dream. But at the heart of this ‘Christmas Carol’ message is that of love and goodwill to all men. It’s a goodwill it asks of its audience, and one it gleefully receives. It’s terrible, and yet I wholeheartedly loved it in spite of its flaws, and if that’s not the true meaning of Christmas I don’t know what is.
Ollie Cole is a journalist and broadcaster based in London. His writing credits include The Stage, Secret London, The Times, KentOnline & EachOther.