An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Four stars

Until January 4

A Christmas Carol

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Two stars

Until December 23

Strange Tales

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Three stars

Until December 21


Edinburgh’s grand repertory theatre, the Royal Lyceum, has long been praised for its stylish Christmas productions. Its latest offering, An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Dickens’s much-loved tale that is simultaneously traditional, innovative and vibrant, can on-ly enhance that reputation.

As the play’s title makes clear, adapter and director Tony Cownie (creator of many an ex-cellent Lyceum production) has relocated the iconic story from London to Auld Reekie. In so doing he has, charmingly and cleverly, woven into Dickens’s narrative both the tale of Greyfriars Bobby and the forbidding history of Scottish Calvinism.

Here, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, designer Neil Murray’s lovely, versatile set plays host to Crawford Logan’s Ebenezer Scrooge, a memorably bleak and stubborn pinch-penny. Interestingly, the miser’s antipathy to the celebration of Christmas is entirely in line with the prohibitions of the Church of Scotland (Cownie’s story is set in 1857, some 14 years before Christmas became a public holiday in Scotland).

At Greyfriars Kirkyard, the poorly Tiny Tim (represented by a beautiful, little puppet, creat-ed by Simon Auton) frets over the future of Greyfriars Bobby, the famous Skye Terrier (an-other fabulous Auton puppet), whose penniless owner has just died. Bobby is being pursued by Grant O’Rourke’s tremendously funny policeman and a merciless dog catcher (Brian James O’Sullivan).

These local innovations to the story work beautifully in an otherwise faithful, brilliantly Scottish retelling. Ewan Donald is a perfectly sympathetic Rab Cratchit, Nicola Roy is a hoot as Scrooge’s radge housekeeper (among others), and Steven McNicoll is at his comic best in numerous roles (not least the delightful Mr Fezziwig and the kilted “Ghost of Christmas Nouadays”).

All in all, this is an intelligent, humorous, emotionally engaging, marvellously vivid Carol. Crucially, it hinges on Logan’s compelling Scrooge, whose puritanical miserliness is every bit as convincing as his final, joyful redemption.

If the Lyceum’s show is notable, in part, for its endearing dog, Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is, sad to say, an absolute dog’s dinner. Set simultaneously in Dickens’s 19th century and our own troubled times, it is an artistic experiment gone very badly wrong.

Adapter Isobel McArthur and director Ben Occhipinti are, presumably, trying to express the timelessness of the great story by shifting constantly back-and-forth between the author’s mid-1800s and today. However, when, for instance, Scrooge is confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the shape of daft, modern street lights on wheels (which seem like Dr Who rejects from the 1970s), the production lacks any sense of coherent identity.

Colin McCredie’s Scrooge runs around in this visually unlovely, nebulous time warp seem-ing, not like a flint-hearted, self-confident misanthrope, but, inappropriately, a weak-kneed moral coward. From the moment he is accosted by Marley’s ghost, this Scrooge becomes the embodiment of whingeing self-pity; a characterisation that renders his spiritual transfor-mation much less powerful, if not pointless.

In the midst of this mess there is one shining light. Occhipinti’s largely accomplished cast boasts some strong actor-musicians, and their live performance of a series of Christmas carols succeeds in generating some seasonal atmosphere.

Ultimately, though, the play (in which Bob Cratchit is a debt-collector, rather than a clerk) fails in its efforts to make politically significant comparisons between the proponents of Victo-rian workhouses and the latter day austerity merchants who preside over foodbanks. Unlike Cownie’s Lyceum adaptation (which stays true to the spirit of Dickens), this distractingly di-vergent Carol descends into a purposeless, postmodern sludge.

And now for something completely different. We can forget that the UK is rare in world drama in staging almost nothing in the month of December besides Christmas shows. The Traverse Theatre, quite reasonably, likes to rebel against this state of affairs by offering thea-trelovers alternative fare during the festive period.

This year it is staging not one, but two new stage works with defiantly non-Christmas themes. The first of these, a co-production with Grid Iron theatre company, is Strange Tales.

The piece is based upon a handful of the approximately 500 supernatural stories written by the great Chinese author of the 17th and early 18th centuries Pu Songling. Co-written and co-directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison, it is performed by Lockhart (who is Scottish), Luna Dai (who is Chinese) and Robin Khor Yong Kuan (who is Malaysian Chinese).

Played on Karen Tennent’s simple, yet visually sumptuous set, the production enjoys at-mospheric music, and excellent puppets and video projections. The tale of a young man who falls in love with a beautiful, female ghost, for example, reminds us (in its vampirism) that such stories carry remarkable similarities from east to west.

However, although the performance of the tales is often affecting and amusing, Lockhart’s playing of Scottified, male characters as dull-witted neds seems egregious. Likewise conflicts with supernatural forces which owe more to a martial arts school than something more spir-itual.