Last Christmas, after dominating the West End with three productions running simultaneously, the endearing chaos of Mischief Theatre made its first foray into TV, introducing wider audiences to the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as it blunderingly staged Peter Pan.
This year’s offering, A Christmas Carol, suffers slightly by comparison because it relies on remembering that the CPDS was banned by the BBC after last year’s disastrous broadcast. That’s why they decide to kidnap the cast and crew of a live BBC production of A Christmas Carol in order to perform it themselves. But once the backstory is out of the way, and it’s all up and running, the physical and visual humour is as brilliantly funny as we’ve come to expect from the soon to be world-dominating Mischief Theatre.
All the mischievous elements are there: sets falling apart, props failing apart, stagehands and set dressers trying hard to put things right. Straight faces carry it as ever, with the cast’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that anything’s actually gone awry.
Henry Lewis’ attempts to incapacitate Henry Shields’ Scrooge, and so take the part for himself, end in crippling Tiny Tim and tranquillising Derek Jacobi, while Jonathan Sayer’s inability to learn lines while playing Bob Cratchit means that words and phrases are pasted onto any available prop – from the insides of doors to individual grapes.
Whereas Peter Pan was an existing stage show, Mischief Theatre has written this especially for TV. As a result there are more ambitious effects to go wrong. Breaking out of its bounds, the show even interferes with the BBC idents and continuity announcements. And, of course, behind-the-scenes drama and relationships between the actors start to inflict themselves on the performances.
Cleverly, the plot of A Christmas Carol and the narrative of those backstage dramas are at cross-purposes, so that as everyone learns to love Scrooge in the tale, the company begins to hate Shields for cheating and slagging them off behind the scenes. And by the end the show has gotten more meta than ever.
Still, the conceit is slightly thinner as a TV drama rather than a stage show: it’s not as easy to forgive the many ‘mistakes’ as it is in a theatre. But there’s also great charm in seeing the Cornley company bring its relentless amateurism and complete lack of know-how to TV production.
With plenty of genuinely laugh out loud moments, this wonderfully warped take on Dickens is a lovely end-of-year treat.