As a title, Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol doesn’t give away much. It inevitably conjures images of Parton herself: her widely permed hair and even wider smile, an image as familiar and iconic as the Coca-Cola sign.
Eavesdropping on conversationsn in the foyer of the Southbank Centre, it was clear that audiences hadn’t got a clue what they had booked for either. Would this Christmas spectacular with a celebrity’s name in it actually be any good?
Well, yes. Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is slow to get going, and the storytelling is often too literal, particularly in the first act, but the show features a handful of new Dolly Parton-penned songs that are memorably good, with the distinct essence of the country legend.
The perm and wide smile were absent from press night – Parton’s said she’s not coming over to England anytime soon in press interviews to promote the show – but the evening is at least laced with her catchy refrains. Circle of Love and A Smoky Mountain Christmas fall firmly into earworm territory, and by the show’s end, I shed a tear at the heartfelt Christmassyness of it all.
So what’s going on? It’s essentially Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reinvented with more of a workers’ rights twist. A load of miners in East Tennessee are screwed over by Jacob Marley and Scrooge after they sell off their shops and put them out of work. There is also a number of songs indebted to the other story of Christmas – the one about Jesus – as Parton is religious. They come across as adorable and about family and connection rather than anything preachy, and they’re made especially cute thanks to young actor Samuel Sturge who plays a heart-meltingly good Tiny Tim.
It would have been nice, particularly in the lengthy Christmas Past segment in act one, to zoom in on one or two moments rather than covering so much material. It’s not helped by the fact that there’s an old-fashioned way of telling the story that relies solely on the script. Modern musicals tend to let the songs move the story on too, but here, they largely act as lovely little interludes, meaning the script has to do all the work.
But by the second act, Scrooge, played as compellingly waif and introspective by Robert Bathurst, roars into his emotions. Circle of Love is a lovely closing song – by the second of third rendition, it feels like a Christmas classic.
Dolly Parton’s Snowy Mountain Christmas Carol plays at the Southbank Centre until 8 January