Old Vic Theatre, London – until 20 January 2018
DICKENS UNCHAINED… Good to see the Old Vic auditorium in the round again (a Spacey innovation). Though this time, there’s a long transverse thrust stage enabling Marley’s ghost to drag a spectacular 40ft or so of chains and strongboxes behind him, and to be dragged out backwards by it.
The book is adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell with many a dangling, swooping lantern, invisible door and pop-up strongbox. It is, therefore, tempting to start with the grand finish: to refer to Matilda and Harry Potter and the like, and reveal staging-finale matters aerial, textile, meteorological, zipwire and sprout-related.
But no spoilers. Take the kids to see, mark, draw in its sternly humane morality and wait for the big gasps till the end. Take it as straightish Dickens with artful Thorne adaptations, whose marvellously heartfelt Christmas quality would delight the author of 1843. It begins and ends with the cast playing the silvery simplicity of handbells, and all through it in a mood-setting score by Christopher Nightingale, there are laced familiar carols.
They fit: “In the Bleak Midwinter” can be, after all, eerie for a midnight haunting. And thundering words like “Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!” could hardly be more apt for old Scrooge’s final relieved awakening. And if you are a miserly old bastard being harassed by carol-singers approaching up the long stage, what tune could be more appropriately infuriating than “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”?
Scrooge is a dishevelled Rhys Ifans, an actor who can produce mad-eyed mania but keeps it under control in a fine and often movingly anguished process through his ghostly torments, until the great relief unleashes crazed capering. Thorne’s adaptation is clever enough to add surprise and even suspense to the well-worn tale: cunningly, it begins with choral narration by the black-cloaked cast intoning from “Marley was dead”, and sometimes reverts to the letter of the text both in narration and dialogue.
But there are differences, surprises; the ghosts are not spectacular but motherly, pram-pushing: there is more emphasis on the harsh father and sad boyhood, without excuses (“These are the bricks you are made from…we are all made. But we make, too”). Fezziwig becomes an undertaker; Scrooge’s lost sister a ghost, his early lover a figure who, in Thorne’s unusually long coda, is modern enough to need a face-to-face reckoning forty years later. There are moments which without losing the cloaked, top-hatted, handbell mood of the piece , seem directed harder at our TV-news generation than at Dickens’ contemporaries. When the ghost shows him Tiny Tim’s likely end Scrooge cries “a dying child – is it wrong not to want to see that?”. Good question.
So it is DIckensian and modern, clever and heartfelt, gripping and touching and tuneable and serious and sometimes funny (Ifans is indeed let off the chain for a while in the end, and Marley gets a moment. In restless late November, it began Christmas as it should be.
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