A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic: Stunning Design and a Bell-Ringing Chorus makes this a Festive Gift for all
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews this traditional tale of bah-humbug at the Old Vic.
What is in an opening line? Writing an introduction should be blithe, coy, wry or maybe teasing, amongst many other things. Ironically, the ideal opening is the opposite of this delayed meditation. But that’s ok, because in 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, which began, ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’ Certainly, the Old Vic’s new production of this seasonal tale, adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus, proves that the spirit of Dickens’ original message is alive and kicking.
Dickens was a theatrical man: he loved to entertain and was a pioneer as an author in touring live recitals of his works both in England and America. Such was the gusto and emphasis that Dickens put into these performances that they probably contributed to his death aged only fifty-eight. Watching A Christmas Carol, it is striking to see how obviously this story lends itself to the theatre. The structure of the show is inherent in the original: an introduction to Ebenezer Scrooge’s misery, the visitations by Jacob Marley and the three spirits and a final, redemptive scene wherein we see the man Scrooge has become. Whilst Thorne’s version of this story loses the Dickensian realism (read: dirt and suffering), the changes are often judicious and work well under Stephen Tompkinson’s superb portrayal of Scrooge. Whilst for many Michael Caine singing along with a load of Muppets may be Scrooge, Tompkinson does a fine job of showing the character’s movement from miser to benefactor, a bah-humbug (as it were) to a god-bless-yee-merry-gentlemen.
Moreover, and rather in-keeping with Dickens’ original message of loving one-another, the strength of this production comes from its chorus. In its delicacy and simplicity, the choric bell-ringing throughout this production is a treat in itself, whilst seeing Lenny Rush as Tiny Tim is equally adorable and heart-breaking when one painfully knows the potential fate of this young man. Added to this chorus is Rob Howell’s stunning design. The ghosts of Christmases past, present and future are respectively played by Myra McFadyen, Nicola Hughes and Witney White, though the chorus are also used to capture the indefinability of the final figure. The ghosts are dressed in mismatched, patchwork dresses that harken to Little Fan’s homemade scarf for her brother Scrooge. The stunning hanging lanterns come to quickly represent the pulsing movement of time, and rising door frames neatly show the intangibility of the ghosts and their movement. Indeed, the penultimate scene is one of pure Christmas joy that easily leaves the audience in a positive mood: never have I before (nor may I ever again) seen brussels sprouts on parachutes fly into the audience. The falling snow and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting throughout are further delectable treats at this Christmas feast.
As mentioned above, Thorne’s version does omit some of the Dickensian focus on the suffering felt outside of Scrooge’s world. The lines about Ignorance and Want and Scrooge’s uncouth focus on the workhouses have been transposed to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s warnings about Tiny Tim, and Scrooge’s father is heavily used to a psychanalytic backstory to explain his son’s present state. Consequently, the focus on Scrooge becomes rather exaggerated, and the final five minutes sacrifice the otherwise brisk pace of the show for a solipsistic moral that was rather incongruous given the communal spirit of the preceding fifteen minutes. If these changes make this production a Christmas no-go instead of a ho-ho-ho, then that’s absolutely fine. But, dear reader, the epilogue to this show alone is able to evoke the joy and warmth of Christmas, and for which I say: ‘God bless us, everyone.’
A Christmas Carol is playing at the Old Vic until the 19th January, 2019.
Production and feature photographs: Manuel Harlan