Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 20 January 2019
It is 1842: young Charles Dickens, 30 years old and with five novels under his belt, is ranting. The Industrial Revolution is revving up nicely, but tens of thousands of the poorest are left behind and so are their children: slum brats without hope, infant drudges in factories and sweatshops where bodies and spirits are broken. Brandishing a report with fury, he tells his publisher Forster that his next work will be a polemic. Forster pleads with him, saying a story could have more force. As they move through a busy London scene the notion catches fire: a cold-faced man in a tall hat brushes aside an urchin, a heavy office door slams, a father carries his lame child on his shoulders… the majestic Dickens imagination slides down the slipway and the work is under way.
David Edgar’s adaptation, directed as last year by Rachel Kavanaugh, gives the old story of ghosts and redemption deft additions and expanded scenes; while the Old Vic’s very different production by Jack Thorne throws emphasis on Scrooge’s hardening in youth and painful redemption, Edgar directs the light more on social conditions, and the unforgivable shame of those who will not look at them. Both emphases work beautifully, both are appropriate.
Joseph Timms is a fiery impulsive Dickens, darting in and out of scenes with the quieter publisher alongside him: indeed the only time Forster really panics, publisher-style, is at the point when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge dead, his bedcurtains and linen sold off by some magnificently disgusting lowlife thieves (top cackling crone-work here from Claire Carrie, otherwise having to play various posher ladies and a severe Christmas Past). Forster, almost weeping with horror, says you can’t end on a corpse, at Christmas! Dickens twinkles that it’s not over yet.
Aden Gillett is a sharp-nosed Scrooge but also an unusually thoughtful one, showing his change of mind more gradually than most interpreters; Gerard Carey a suitably worried family man as Cratchit. One of Edgar’s most impassioned additions is to the family scene, with not only the sickly Tiny Tim but explicit revelations of what is happening to all the other Cratchit children: a daughter losing her sight as a seamstress, on board-and-lodging only, another due to follow her, a boy who loves to learn taken from the ragged-school to industrial slavery – as Dickens, suddenly sorrowful, remembers being himself. Most startlingly of all, Emma Pallant as Cratchit’s wife turns on him, angry at his failure to prevent these fates. It is a slap of a moment, a reminder that marriages can crumble under extreme poverty.
There is, of course, merriment too: Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig wig is as festively fezzy as it should be, again in an expanded scene pointing up the old employer’s benevolence. There is some wild dancing, a fine Victorianesque score from Catherine Jayes and a heartbreakingly lovely carol led by Tiny Tim just after the shocking parental row. There’s even a sly Donald Trump joke in the party game at Fred’s, and I enjoyed the bluff Mancunian Ghost of Christmas Present (Danielle Henry) pinching candied-fruit from the table there. And comedy is attempted too in the one duff note of the script, where (improbably) the reformed Scrooge pretends to sack Cratchit, who rants against his meanness and lists old grudges. Somehow, that doesn’t ring true.
But what stays in the memory, demanding reflection on our new century, is that gallant Cratchit family scene, and the silent, accusing, ravaged faces of the children who are Want and Ignorance. Dickens, 175 years on, has done it again.
. Box office: 01789 403493. rsc.org.uk to 20 Jan