“God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…” So the carol goes that rings out in Scrooge’s ears – and Matthew Warchus’ new production of the Dickens classic (adapted by Olivier Award winner Jack Thorne) follows in that vein, bringing “tidings of comfort and joy” in copious measures. It kicks off the new Old Vic season in joyful style, spreading festive cheer in the capital.
You all must know the story: it’s Christmas Eve and the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has finished business for the day. After reluctantly granting his clerk (Bob Cratchit) the following day off, he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner (Jacob Marley) who warns him of the fate that awaits him in death, and that three further spirits will visit him that night. Despite trying to cheat the clock, Scrooge is taken on journeys by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present & Future, all in a bid to change his miserable ways. Throughout the night he revisits his school days and his apprenticeship at Fezziwig’s (where he met Belle), learns more about his faithful employee’s family, and discovers what will happen to his possessions and the people he left behind when he dies.
The novella was published in 1843, the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Despite our typical view of the Victorians being highly conservative in every aspect of their lives, the young queen was relatively liberal – and A Christmas Carol is almost surprisingly socialist. And it’s this that Jack Thorne seems to have really played upon when adapting it for a brand new stage production.
Every year various versions pop up, whether full scale or one-man (just as Dickens did during his lifetime, good recent examples being Simon Callow and Martin Prest), so why add to this number now? I think the answer is staring us in the face every time we walk down the street or turn on the news; nurses are relying on food banks to feed their families, the number of homeless people is rising, and the rich keep getting richer. We desperately need every reminder we can get of the power of kindness, and goodwill to our fellow man – or, as Scrooge’s nephew Fred puts it, “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave”.
And, well, it’s just a bloody good story, isn’t it? A classic tale of redemption, coloured with joy, heartache and the supernatural… It is so rich with potential that, depending on your means & imagination, you can do nearly anything with it. In Thorne’s version, the socialist message is backed by traditional carols as well as original compositions (Christopher Nightingale) – and it almost feels like you’re stepping back into Victorian London as you first enter the auditorium. Hawkers are on hand to provide you with mince pies and satsumas, while the rest of the cast mill around the stalls and musicians play.
Even more delightfully, it is set in the round. Seats have been added to the stage, and the stage itself projects out into the depths of the stalls to provide a rather large performance space indeed. I’d go as far as to say I don’t think there are many bad seats in the house! There is no real set to speak of, only door frames that are raised and lowered at different points in the show, and some beautiful lanterns hung overhead. The rest is animated by the odd prop, and some atmospheric lighting from Hugh Vanstone.
The cast are a real treat to watch, taking on some individual roles, but also acting as ensemble storytellers who narrate the show and pop up in various scenes throughout.
There are four potential Tiny Tims: Toby Eden, Grace Fincham, Lenny Rush & Ethan Quinn. I have actually seen the show three times and seen a different Tim each time (naturally I’d now like to ‘complete the set’), but I’d like to talk about the most recent performer, Lenny Rush. He is an especially cheeky Tim, showing that disability won’t hold him or his character back, as a bubbly personality shines through. He has an easy rapport with his onstage father John Dagleish (playing Bob Cratchit) and is clearly an absolute natural.
This production gives greater prominence to the women in Scrooge’s life, a choice that is reflected in the three spirits being female. Myra McFadyen is lightly humorous as Past, and Golda Rosheuvel (Present) is an asset to any cast for her singing voice alone – though this is rivalled by her comic delivery late on in the piece. Melissa Allan is sweet & sincere as Little Fan and Future, though no less strong in character for her delicate constitution. Erin Doherty’s Belle (daughter of Fezziwig) is down-to-earth, honest, and really good fun; it’s nice to see her part of Scrooge’s story get a bit more attention and depth.
But, of course, at the centre of this production is Ebenezer Scrooge himself – that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”! Rhys Ifans returns to the Old Vic and takes on this notorious character with a real vigour. Ifans is younger than your typical Scrooge, but this factor (on top of his natural energy) works particularly well as Scrooge journeys back into his past; to begin with there is a separate young Ebenezer (Jamie Cameron), but for the most part the older Scrooge is made to actually relive the moments selected by the Ghost of Christmas Past. His natural flair for comedy comes in very useful when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, even running around the auditorium to shake people’s hands or give them a kiss, and he is equally adept at the dark, miserly old man we see for the rest of the play. A truly iconic performance.
My verdict? A brilliant new re-telling of a well-known classic that isn’t afraid to embrace the darkness of Dickens, as well as the joy of the season – if you’re not a happy, snotty mess by the end, you have a heart of stone!
A Christmas Carol runs at the Old Vic until 20 January 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.