Bridge Theatre, London – until 16 January 2021
Beneath festoons of horrid chains, nimble amid strongboxes and trunks and safes, three actors bring the old text to violently emotional life. Assisted only by pillars of smoke, simple scenic projections and the inspired, roaring, dry energy of Dickens’ prose, they and the elegance of Nicholas Hytner’s direction create a miniature theatrical perfection.
This version is text-heavy, narrated and performed in seamless vigour by the trio. It brings back some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street. It does not shrink from solemnity: the great Simon Russell Beale after all is our miserly, redeemed hero, and when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and despised, his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear. Patsy Ferran – when being Cratchit – grieves Tiny Tim with real choking dignity, and Eben Figueiredo has as much authority being magisterially serious as he is rapid in caricature.
But it is a playful show too, at ease with new-variety tricks of small group storytelling: when Ferran moves between skinny clerk to be “a portly gentleman” collecting donations, she pauses as the line is spoken by Figueiredo, hastily stuffing Cratchit’s scarf up her front. When an elderly aunt or cackling crone is required Russell Beale is, as ever, happy to oblige with a cosily camp tweak of a shawl. They all sing, too, briefly and unaccompanied, simply; it can jerk an embarrassing tear. And I will not spoil the happy sweater-based finale for you.
The stages are amply Scrooged this year. Fitly enough, since we’re all so sorry for ourselves that we risk forgetting the really desperate, the hungry, the Cratchits whose jobs are vanishing. And beyond them, in a striking moment here, come Dickens’ most terrifying creations: the boy and girl called Want and Ignorance. “Meagre, ragged, scowling.. horrible and dread… Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom, unless the writing be erased.”
In the heart of a city where killings among young men have peaked this year, it chimed. The doomed children are puppets here, brief and deftly handled, as is Tiny Tim himself but far, far more frightening. So there you are: a 90 minute familiar Victoriana for today, catching and passing on both Dickens’ fury and his unquenchable jollity. Happy Christmas, Bridge!
Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 16 Jan, with luck. Rating five.