Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
‘Tis the season to remember those less fortunate than ourselves and David Edgar’s stirring new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, doesn’t stint on political rhetoric. There’s even, and this is a revelation as it comes from Phil Davis’s Scrooge, a joke that tars foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, with the same traits as the miserly skinflint.
The RSC’s A Christmas Carol has an interesting framing device that sees Dickens himself – and his friend and editor John Forster – included in the story. It’s a novel twist from Edgar and one that works extremely well. It roots the idea of the Christmas tale in his disgust at a government paper outlining the appalling working conditions of Victorian child labourers, many of who started down mines or in factories and shops, at the age of five.
Dickens saw himself as a campaigning, radical political writer, championing workers rights, social injustices and childcare through his work. Forster encourages him to write a Christmas tale. “Write it as a story that will echo down the ages”.
Edgar’s version contains all the big gestures and key elements of the original short story with the playwright as passionate as Dickens in writing something with a strong social conscience and moral compass. We meet Scrooge, ‘bah humbugging’ and scowling as though he has a wasp stuck in his gullet or a bad smell up his nose. He has no time for do-gooders, debtors or even Tiny Tim, the crippled son of his own clerk, Bob Cratchit. He’s a curmudgeon who gives short shrift to kindness, benevolence and compassion.
The diminutive Davis looks, at times, a little lost on the vast RS Theatre stage but he produces a splendid sneer and even allows the old sod an occasional, if irregular, moment of levity.
Later, after being chided and re-educated by the three spirits of Christmases past, present and future, the actor appears high on charity and good-deeds, positively wide-eyed and punch-drunk with elation.
Throughout the production Dickens and Forster discuss which road the narrative should take. At one point Dickens decides to end the tale at Scrooge’s death.
“You can’t do that!” cries Forster. “I can, I’m the writer,” says Nicholas Bishop’s sincere Dickens.
“You can’t end a Christmas story with a corpse!”
Dickens reveals to his friend that he understood the hardships faced by families like the Cratchits.
He was taken out of school, because of his father’s debts, and sent to work in a boot blacking factory while his sister enjoyed studies at the Royal College of Music.
This is very much an ensemble production with director, Rachel Kavanaugh, utilising her large company to play a number of major and peripheral roles, in tableaux of classic Victoriana.
The social divide is never wider with chestnut sellers, hawkers and ragamuffins scampering about, while the upper classes enjoy parlour games and parties.
Fezziwig’s Yuletide bash is particularly splendid, with the cast indulging in some well-choreographed dancing, while both Scrooge and his younger self (played by Bishop), look on, unable to drink in the festive spirit.
There are strong performances by Gerard Carey and Emma Pallant, as Mr and Mrs Cratchit and from Brigid Zengeni who makes an impact as the larger-than-life and voracious and the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Giles Taylor and the RSC’s make-up team have also come up with a noteworthy, ghostly, Jacob Marley.
The production indulges in a couple of party tricks to endorse the supernatural elements of the plot which are a little bit gimmicky.
But there’s nothing to scare young theatre-goers. In past productions I’ve seen some terrifying interpretations of the Ghost of Christmas Future but here it is very underplayed.
This is an entertaining and very politically aware production which endorses Mr Edgar’s already superb credentials as a master of Dickens’ adaptations and one of the country’s leading playwrights.