A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic: seasonal sweetness offset by more acrid notes

Rhys Ifans gives a Scrooge that is wonderfully funny, seductive and interactive with the audience.

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Productions of A Christmas Carol – presumably to the fury of the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge – tend to benefit from having decent amounts of money thrown at them. Blessedly, the Bob Cratchits in the book-keeping offices at the Old Vic have signed off on a lavish and spectacular staging of the Dickens novella by the venue’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus.

A proper screen star, Rhys Ifans, gives a Scrooge that is wonderfully funny, seductive and interactive with the audience. The script is by Jack Thorne, who is currently the big daddy of family-friendly theatre after writing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the two-part continuation of JK Rowling’s novels that is expected to run for eternity in most global capitals. While honouring the original, Thorne also achieves one of the largest theatrical laughs of 2017 with the improbable punch-word “Brenda”.

This is a Christmas Carol that does what it says in the title. A dozen carols are performed in full or part, so that the show sometimes pleasantly resembles a yuletide jukebox musical. And the staging, with all its Christmas trimmings, makes a Richard Curtis movie climax look Scrooge-like. The audience is twice ambushed by heavy falls of soap-bubble snow so realistically squishy that it dissolved the lines in my notebook that were attempting to describe it. When Scrooge needs to source ingredients for the Christmas dinner celebrating the new him, sheets suddenly unfurl from the corners of the upper circle, becoming chutes down which torrents of sprouts and satsumas are rolled to the stage.

Such seasonal sweetness, though, is offset by more acrid notes. Thorne’s Freudian Potter plays show how the boy wizard’s lack of a father initially makes him a bad dad. Similarly, the dramatist’s treatment of Scrooge emphasises wounds from a cruel parent, tough schooling, lost sister, and rejected fiancée. The national psyche is also invoked when Scrooge seems to channel Jacob Rees-Mogg in his suggestion that food banks are “uplifting” because they show a society’s ability to help the poor without troubling the government.

Another dark touch is that, in Rob Howell’s design, each Christmas ghost has a form of cradle-to-grave transport. Past pushes a toy pram (suggesting Ebenezer’s sister, Little Fan); Present has a full-size baby carriage (perhaps the offspring of Belle, Scrooge’s lost love); and Yet To Come walks behind a wheeled coffin, in which the miser will eventually lie. The potentially eerie effect is diluted by the staging – with the audience circled around a vast cruciform walkway – which creates a playing space too open and exposed for the use of spooky lighting and smoke effects. Hearts are more likely to be warmed than spines chilled by what is supposed, after all, to be a ghost story. Even when Marley’s spectre drags metres of chain behind him as he limps down the stage, he’s so close to us that the effect is comic.

All modern theatrical Dickens is to some extent indebted to the RSC’s 1980 epic, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, it was adapted by David Edgar, who, by coincidence, has written a version of A Christmas Carol for the RSC, which has been beaten to the stage by the Old Vic. Devices from that Nickleby included dividing narration between the actors and turning simple props to complex uses – packing crates, for instance, becoming a coach; these are now part of the vocabulary of putting books on stage, and are echoed by Warchus when money boxes are piled up to make a desk for Scrooge, or several paragraphs of the text are delivered as a spoken chorale by 16 performers.

Although the Old Vic show ends with the passing round of a bucket for Field Lane, a charity descended from the Ragged School that inspired Dickens to write the story, Edgar’s version is likely to make more use of the Victorian social context. But it would be hard to imagine a more consistently joyous and inventive winter outing than this rendition of Dickens’s hymn to the possibility of redemption.

“A Christmas Carol” runs until 20 January

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special