Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 4 February 2018
This year’s seasonal offering in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a grand affair as David Edgar (it was he who famously adapted Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for the company back in 1980) tackles A Christmas Carol. The classic fable is timeless in its tale of Ebenezer Scrooge who is forced to re-discover his compassion and humanity. What concerns Edgar however is that some of the book’s rich social commentary upon the time may have been been lost over the decades and this 2017 adaptation seeks to redress that balance.
Edgar’s trick is to frame the story as a spin-out of dialogue between Dickens himself (as a young man in his 30s, played by Nicholas Bishop) and John Forster, the author’s editor and friend played by Beruce Kahn. It is a novel conceit that serves well to remind us of the inhuman poverty of the time along with the widespread and crippling exploitation of very young children employed in the nation’s factories. But in his history lesson, Edgar does us a disservice –Dickens’ prose spoke of the harshness of his time through a beautiful (and quintessentially English) dynamic of understatement, allowing his carefully crafted text to paint the picture. Here, as Dickens and Forster occasionally explain the show’s context in their exchanges, Edgar’s script feels lazy and patronising and, to the purists, a distraction. And as for those references to Snapchat, Uber, Tinder and Boris Johnson – they seem crass and shallow in a show that other than its Christmas scheduling is anything but a pantomime.
The casting however is exquisite. Phil Davis’ Scrooge captures the miserly callousness of the old usurer. The story is traditionally set in London and there is more than a hint of Wilfred Brambell’s Steptoe to Davis’ gnarled anti-hero. Actually, that’s no bad thing, because the tragic pathos of Scrooge’s loneliness is one of the show’s underlying drivers and as Dickens’ four ghosts guide him on his path to redemption, Davis cleverly lets the petals of Scrooge’s humanity unfold.
But bah humbug! The full depth and breadth of the RSC’s main house is put to fine use and even if the projections are a little cranky, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ scenery and Ben Hart’s illusions are a treat. The cast too offer up a fine interpretation of the festive favourite. Vivien Parry pops up as numerous characters throughout the tale including an enchanting Ghost Of Christmas Past (as well as a wonderfully crotchety elderly aunt). Gerard Carey and Emma Pallant break our hearts with their passionate dignity as Bob Cratchit and his wife, while on press night, the sweetly voiced young Jude Muir made fine work of Tiny Tim.
Rachel Kavanaugh has created quality theatre with A Christmas Carol – the show’s visuals offer a hint of magic – and there is much of our nation’s troubled social history to consider too. But above all, the story’s traditional message of the healing powers of love, warmth and kindness shines through. The people of Stratford are well served this Christmas.