Review: Twist Your Dickens (The Second City)

twist-your-dickens-3Second City revamps a holiday classic with hilarity for Toronto audiences

Holidays are all about traditions. But sometimes, you need to mix it up a little and try something new. The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, currently playing at the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts takes Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale in new—and sometimes hilarious—directions.

Twist Your Dickens is written by former writers of The Colbert Report, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort. The basics of the familiar story are there. Ebenezer Scrooge is a greedy, miserly, cruel boss to Bob Cratchit. He is visited by the three ghosts who show him the error of his ways. But if you are looking for a traditional take on the story, look elsewhere.

Although the costumes and set are nominally Victorian, the show is filled with contemporary references. The anachronisms become a running gag, with an audience member, played by Nigel Downer, repeatedly criticizing the lack of “authenticity.” This version is also intercut with improvised sketches, twisted takes on other holiday classics, and various loosely joined Christmas scenes.

I thought the show was at its best during the improvised bits. A particularly funny one featured slips of paper on which the audience had written down past misdeeds before the show.  Sean Cullen (playing Scrooge) and Patrick McKenna (the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley) riff on the minor crimes to great comedic effect.

Cullen and McKenna really carry the show. Cullen’s Scrooge was the perfect combination of bombast and ridiculousness. Nothing was sacred to him as he ridiculed everything from poor Bob Cratchit to the Serbian music being played in the adjoining theatre. McKenna plays a variety of roles. My favourite was when he was playing Scrooge’s nephew Freddy as a slightly unbalanced fan of all things Christmas.

Another standout for me was Sarah Hiller, whose smart and cynical comebacks cut through the satirical sappiness.  She plays Tiny Tim with a hysterical blend of cheerfulness and snark. She also had a greatly improved scene with Cullen, where she plays Scrooge’s lost love Belle.

Although I enjoyed myself most of the time, I found the show to be somewhat erratic, bouncing back and forth between the main story and the extra bits.  The scripted parts were a little clunky and sometimes felt like they were wandering in search of a joke. The improvised scenes had me laughing out loud.  And the strong performances elevated the less interesting material.

For me, the traditional Christmas Carol can get a little boring and pedantic. I know the holiday season is all about peace on earth and good will towards men. But the moralizing of the original can be tiresome. Twist Your Dickens was a fun nod to an old favourite, a way to shake up the seasonal routine while keeping the holiday spirit.


Photo of Sean Cullen and Sarah Hillier by Paul Aihoshi