Old Vic Theatre, London – until 20 January 2018
When visited by my own ghost of Christmas theatre past, I was taken to a gloomy Old Vic on New Year’s Eve 1993 and bore witness to my former self enjoying Patrick Stewart’s one-man Christmas Carol. The stage was bare, the thesp had but a single prop – a chair. We leaned in, as though being read a great bedtime story. This was austere Dickens, reverent to its source.
Twenty-four years later the perennial favourite/imposition has returned to this theatre in a very different guise. It’s full-throated; a spirited company bounding the length of a minimalist crucifix stage (God bless us, indeed!) extending either side of the proscenium. It’s a fugue of classic text and midnight mass, complete with swinging lanterns, ghost light, and a cast doubling as choristers and bell ringers.
It boasts an effervescent Scrooge in Rhys Ifans – all wild hair and projectile spittle, and a Tiny Tim to make your blackened heart bleed. But beyond the showmanship and logistical complexity – this is a show that utilises the entire theatre so that no section of the audience is neglected – Jack Thorne’s rewrite achieves a minor Christmas miracle; a taste of what the story might have felt like prior to being saddled with chains forged by a thousand and one retellings.
Charmingly fresh, Matthew Warchus’s production recalls the sensation of laying eyes on the old Victorian frontage of Kings Cross station once the modern concourse had been removed. It’s easy to imagine Thorne’s mission statement going in – make it new. We’ve seen so many Christmas Carols, we know the beats and dialogue by heart, so why spend £65 revisiting it? This canny staging understands what makes the story sing – its social conscience, the Victorian melodrama, the joyous catharsis of Scrooge’s transformation, while revising elements either lacking psychological depth in the original text, as was Dickens wont, or deadened by repetition, to the point they’ve become festive clichés.
It’s a respectful tweaking that introduces an undigested piece of psychological realism in the form of Scrooge’s abusive and uncaring father, and fresh crumbs of pathos, including a touching visit to a married Belle that acts as a sober and satisfying coda to their doomed relationship. Amongst the recast spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears as Fan, Scrooge’s dead sister, giving the character an active role in the story and adding emotional depth to the miser’s final tussle with his misbegotten self.
What hasn’t changed is the story’s rich humanity, here in abundance, and its dry wit. There have been many Christmas Carols and they’ll be many more, but it’s hard to imagine an adaptation as beautiful and celebratory as this one. The Old Vic should record it for posterity.