Production is a treat and has much to commend it, especially Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge…
By Emma McEvoy
NOW IN ITS SEVENTH year, the Old Vic’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ has lost none of its freshness and exuberance and, if anything, has gained in its timeliness.
Marcus Warchus’s production is a treat. Even before the show starts, the auditorium is bustling. Actors in long dark coats circulate, engaging in banter with the audience and lobbing oranges to those who want them. We feel the brisk, cheery chill of Christmas streets. A group of instrumentalists plays jaunty tunes. In this dynamic piece of theatre, characters move up the catwalk to the central playing area, they appear in galleries and emerge from the shadows. The action happens around and sometimes (depending on where you’re sitting) above you. This is a show where your neighbours will companionably nudge you to let you know what you’ve failed to see. It is a show that expands to the rafters.
Naturally, music is central to the production. There are the traditional carols of the title, folk music and a 19th-century-inspired score that accompanies the more melodramatic aspects of Dickens’ tale. All the cast make music, singing their way through exquisite arrangements of carols and taking up handbells. When the tempo drops and the audience leans in to catch the sweet, clear tones of the bells, we are reminded that such moments are dependent on the players carefully listening and responding to each other – as befits a play which is all about human relations and community.
For the most part, well-established film and tv writer Jack Thorne’s adaptation keeps very close to Dickens’s original story. The first lines are of those of Dickens’s tale. “Marley was dead to begin with” and is delivered with all the portentousness, humour and idiosyncrasy of the original. Here, however, the words are divided between different speakers, taken up by different members of what is essentially a Victorian chorus of the streets. When Thorne strays from Dickens, it is inevitably in the service of a greater dramatic or thematic coherence. Fezziwig (Alastair Parker) is made an undertaker. Belle (Frances McNamee) , Scrooge’s early love, is Fezziwig’s daughter. Thorne departs from Dickens too in attempting to fill in Scrooge’s psychological background, presenting us with a weak, thoughtless selfish father who bullies and manipulates the young Scrooge, instilling the horror of debt into him.
‘A Christmas Carol’ hits many different notes. As well as the seriousness of its pictures of poverty and deprivation, it has all the humour of Dickens’s story, making the most of Scrooge’s tetchy facetiousness when confronted by the spirits’ admonitions.
The households of the Fezziwigs and the Cratchits are full of animated, vocal and generous people. At the centre of the action is Scrooge’s room, his self-imprisoning conveyed by his locking of the invisible doors to the sounds of thunderous clanks and creaks. As we see, even this place is not impermeable. First the Spirits – prams, dark glasses and all – move in. Then, in the profoundly exhilarating finale, Scrooge moves back into the world.
An ensemble piece delivered with energy, vigour and commitment, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is the ultimate Christmas show. It is a play about giving and connectedness, which brims with fellow feeling and joie de vivre. We can’t recommend it enough!
ACV rating: *****(Five out of five)
All pictures: ©TheOldVic and Manuel Harlan
Dr Emma McEvoy is a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Westminster
‘Christmas Carol’ – A version by Jack Thorne, The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB
(November 11) – January 6 2024
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