A Christmas Carol
The Old Vic
4 December 2017
As predictable as it is for theatres to trot out a Shakespearean comedy in the summer months, the minute the temperatures drop, productions of A Christmas Carol are announced left right and centre. This year in particular has seen a glut of them on the scene, from musical efforts to parody fare and now this – Jack Thorne (of Cursed Child fame)’s new adaptation of the Dickens classic at The Old Vic.
Things start typically enough, if not charmingly – upon entering the auditorium the audience are greeted by Victorian-costumed tray bearers with free mince pies and satsumas. Instantly things feel festive. A slightly delayed start on this particular evening takes a positive turn as things progress into an extended Victoriana jam session, and the cast lend to the party atmosphere by working the room in some less than historically accurate ways!
The usual proscenium arch auditorium has been transformed, with onstage stalls helping to flank a central crossroads of stage. Skeletal door frames rise up from the floor to create rooms, and Scrooge’s highly protected money boxes slot into the floor like buried treasure. A massive cluster of lamps hang from the ceiling, filling the vast space of the theatre and encircling one larger lantern that is to become a running motif.
As the show goes on, it becomes even more stunningly cinematic. A small band underscore scenes with a truly affecting soundtrack, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is, to put it bluntly, extraordinary. There are wonderfully designed scenes, including Marley’s ghost (unsettlingly ominous and over all too soon!) and the funereal entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
Despite the moments of darkness, the production is unafraid of revelling in the warmth and joy of this tale. Surprisingly, with that in mind, one of the best things about this specific Carol is its determination to avoid cliché. The usually liberally applied ‘Bah, Humbugs’ are few and far between – though thankfully many of the best lines remain, including Scrooge’s accusation that the spirit of Marley is prompted by ‘more gravy than the grave’. Even Tiny Tim is refreshingly low on over-sentimentality, played instead with endearing pluck (and frankly staggering professionalism for his young age) by Toby Eden at this particular performance. Scrooge’s Christmas morning revelry lapses hilariously into pantomime silliness, with a method of transporting a feast to the Cratchit’s house that has to be seen to be believed that it got past Health and Safety.
As for the main man himself, Rhys Ifans makes for an excellent Scrooge. His famous miser often comes across as sulky, with a lingering, bitter resentment behind the famous tight-fisted ways. Old before his time, Ifans’ Scrooge slips easily and unconsciously into his past, the weight of life lifting from his shoulders and tone, at times taking on the role of his younger self as the scene plays out – not just before him, but around him.
The rest of the cast flit between roles in an almost ghostly fashion themselves. Scrooge’s old sweetheart Belle, given far more character and closure than she is usually offered, is played with grace and spirit by Erin Doherty. Golda Rosheuvel is a charming Ghost of Christmas Present, with a steadfast but warm manner.
This adaptation provides the suggestion that the ‘Scrooges’ of the world are not born, but instead made, and indeed go on to make in turn. Scrooge’s backstory is more healthily fleshed out than the glimpses other productions offer. Here we see an abusive, spendthrift father putting a young Ebeneezer to work as soon as possible, whilst continuing to drive the family into debt. This early influence sets a precedence for the rest of Scrooge’s life, casting a shadow over the few chances for happiness he is offered. What ultimately tips Scrooge into redemption is still the fate of a young boy – but not the one we’ve come to expect. Even then, there’s an interesting additional scene of Thorne’s creation where Ebenezer Scrooge is reminded that changing his ways is for life… not just for Christmas.
But among the hauntings and wassailing, there’s a message here. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in response to visiting a poor London school and Thorne is clearly keen to channel this through the Carol he has chosen to tell. “Are there no prisons?” Scrooge snarls at a group of well-meaning carollers, collecting for charity. “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” As his opinion begins to alter, and upon learning of Tiny Tim’s fate, he snaps furiously at the Ghost of Christmas Present that Tim “was just a boy.” She replies that they are always just boys. In a world of austerity and seemingly endless cuts, both of these sentiments are not things of the past, Victorian eccentricities that we can look upon now at a distance. And that’s something far more chilling than poor doomed Marley.
Despite the fact that this is a ghost story, things end suitably merrily, with music, dancing and an artfully timed request to dig deep into our own pockets on our way out. The result is an audience that spills out onto the streets of London feeling very Christmassy indeed. Dizzyingly joyful, expertly crafted and with a smart social conscience, it’s safe to say that this is the Carol to see this Christmas.