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Review: Cullen scores the biggest laughs in zany Dickens spoof (Includes first-hand account)

That seems to be what the makers of this Second City-created A Christmas Carol spoof are counting on; there’s a scene in which the voice of Dickens’ ghost tells Seán Cullen’s Ebenezer Scrooge how much he’s loving the show so far – especially the profanity. Making its Toronto debut last night after two runs in Chicago, Twist Your Dickens is part Scrooge parody, part holiday-themed sketch revue. Director Chris Earle ups the silliness by allowing his cast to sprinkle the improv liberally throughout, and if the show ends up inconsistently funny as a result, you’ll still get enough guffaws out of it to fill a stocking or two.

Twist follows the bare bones of Dickens’ over-familiar tale of Scrooge’s supernatural Christmas Eve transformation from greedy miser to nice guy, but with plenty of diversions. The cast of Toronto Second City alumni includes Jason Derosse as a much more bitter and homicidal Bob Cratchit, Nigel Downer as a break-dancing, boombox-carrying Spirit of Christmas Past (that is, he represents the audience’s past) and Sarah Hillier as Tiny Tim. Patrick McKenna plays a weirdly foppish version of Scrooge’s nephew who can’t stop his high-pitched giggling; it’s so stupid and ridiculous that you just can’t not laugh at it after a while.

But it’s not all about Dickens. George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life makes a few cameos (also played by McKenna), and stand-alone sketches reference other holiday icons. There’s a good one about the Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – including Hillier as “a doll with clinical depression” – finally getting adopted, but by West End hipsters who appreciate them ironically. An alternate ending to A Charlie Brown Christmas has the Peanuts gang calling out the special’s religious agenda for being outdated; the point’s a little too obvious here, but the cardboard-cutout Peanuts characters that the cast uses are cute – especially the movable arm and dangling security blanket on Linus.

Although the script is credited to two former staff writers from The Colbert Report, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, Earle’s production is peppered with local references, including catty swipes at the Soulpepper theatre company and Sheridan College, along with throwaway nods to Chinatown and Queen West. There are also a few easy jabs at Donald Trump; when Scrooge announces to his Starbucks-swilling executives that he’s going to have the Queen arrested, they chant, “Lock Her Up!”

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But some of the cleverest jokes are the ones that reference Dickens’ novels and/or the nineteenth-century period setting. “We’ll rip off his Little Dorrit!” shouts Allison Price as a union leader protesting the author’s unfair treatment of his orphan characters. There’s also a funny commercial for a law firm, Chuzzlewit & Pumblechook, representing people dying from old-timey diseases with the slogan, “Barristers Who Care-risters”. And there are some very un-PC gags about sick and starving Victorian children having a slumber party and how long it takes Tiny Tim to get across a room on his crutch; if you don’t laugh at these, you’re a much, much better person than I.

A running gag that doesn’t work has Downer posing as an audience member and griping to Cullen about all the anachronisms in the show, from the 1980s music to Scrooge’s office furniture. It’s as if Gwinn and Mort were desperate to clarify to the audience that this isn’t supposed to be a proper period retelling of A Christmas Carol — hint: the audience already knows. And a later sketch with Karen Parker as a Streisandian diva changing the lyrics to familiar Yuletide tunes has its moments, but it’s the kind of bit that makes you wonder if you could have written it yourself.

Cullen is simply hilarious throughout. His Scrooge is a pompous, bug-eyed windbag that’s like a nutty blend of Zero Mostel and a drunken Orson Welles, and Cullen proves himself again to be one of Canada’s funniest improvisers. He uses the script as silly putty for his own crazy tangents, but never wanders too far off course to lose the plot. His ad-libbed rants about the odd quirks in Jackie Chau’s set, including an unusually small bed and a door that opens the wrong way, will send you into convulsions of laughter. Price is another standout in this cast: she earns big laughs in several small roles, such as a lady who rambles incomprehensible Cockney gibberish in the lawyer commercial and as a drunken, partying Spirit of Christmas Present.

If you’re looking for coherence, consistency and reverence for the classics, you won’t get that here. Try Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol, which is back this year and has charms of a different kind. Or throw in a DVD of the Alastair Sim masterpiece. Twist Your Dickens is a fun night out if you don’t take the holiday season too seriously.

Twist Your Dickens runs at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until December 30.

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