Bah Humbug!/The Swan Theatre, Worcester

NOTIONS of redemption, the saving of souls, and basically bringing the sinner back from the brink are familiar themes in folklore and literature.

England can boast quite a few writers who dwelled at length on such ideas. Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and Somerset Maugham frequently worked on the premise that right can – given favourable circumstances - invariably triumph over wrong.

Worcester Repertory Company writer Chris Jaeger now arguably joins that celebrated company with this new play, a seasonal offering which, although drawing heavily on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, nevertheless has a soul that is uniquely its own.

This is indeed powerfully delivered observational theatre. It’s a morality play in the best tradition of seasonal storytelling, a solstice tale that perfectly conforms to the age-old human urge to gather round the Yuletide hearth as the darkness and gloom of the bleak midwinter descend outside.

Yet this is also a piece that unmistakably draws on older forms of drama, bringing to mind the Coventry Mystery Plays and Mummers’ tales that reach back into antiquity.

Jaeger is very fortunate that he has two supremely talented actors to breathe life into his work. Keith (Murray Andrews) loathes everything about Christmas, from the obligatory postprandial mints to the sound of Noddy Holder’s shouted exhortation in the classic festive hit song.

Keith’s a hedge fund speculator, or something along those lines, and makes more money in a day than the rest of us might earn in a month.

But one night, as he knocks back the red wine and mouths his bile in a shower of chewed peanut particles, a mysterious woman (Alison Hellings) arrives at his flat.

Keith demands to know her name. But the woman tells him that it could be anything. Carol if you like. Her identity is irrelevant… for she is the ghost who has come to haunt him.

And little by little, she performs an autopsy on Keith’s past, unravelling his past treatment of the drug addict homeless brother and the sister whose daughter urgently needs the cash to pay for dealing with a life-threatening health condition.

Like a relationship counsellor, the woman identifies, and then explores, a path through the winter wildwood of Keith’s anger and bluster to make him examine his behaviour and therefore hopefully reform.

This is indeed a gripping drama, expertly delivered by two fine performers, and guaranteed to leave you deep in thought long after the metaphorical curtain comes down at the Vesta Tilley studio.

Earlier, Jaeger told me that he had no firm plans about the future of his latest creation, but nevertheless hinted that it could well become a seasonal regular, judging by the reception the play has been given this year.

My advice would be to go for it. Bah Humbug! is plainly a festive winner that not only entertains but also makes us examine our own consciences in this annual time of frivolity, greed and excess.

John Phillpott