Play: A Christmas Carol
Theatre: The Old Vic
Adapted by: Jack Thorne
Director: Matthew Warchus
Review by Joy Francis
Charles Dickens’ 1843 Christmas novella featuring the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge is prolific from countless remakes on TV and film, so it’s hard to imagine how this overfamiliar classic ghost story can ignite a sense of awe during a holiday season that has been commodified within an inch of its life.
The Old Vic seems to have discovered the secret ingredient as playwright Jack Thorne’s ambitious adaption returns to the theatre for the third time. Boldly directed by Matthew Warchus, no expense has been spared to take us on a fantastical journey away from our often demanding daily lives, in the wake of a General Election that reflects a country divided.
Unless you have been living under the biggest rock for the past 176 years, the story should be etched into your memory cells. Ebenezer Scrooge (an intense and boyish Paterson Joseph) is a cold-hearted and miserly debt collector who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley (Andrew Langtree) and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. After a battle of wills, he sees the error of his ways and transforms into the generous and kind soul he once was.
The Christmas mood is set from when you enter the theatre. Extras in period dress hand out fruit cake and usher you to your seat. The opening scene bursts with visual cues and impeccably tailored period costume. Victorian lanterns gently sway from the ceiling. A harmonious ensemble narrate and sing the story merrily while bells chime.
Scrooge, with his scraggly grey hair, sweaty brow and morose nature, is full of pessimistic platitudes. “Complacency is no-one’s friend” he growls to his overworked and underpaid assistant Bob Cratchit (Steven Miller) while making it plain that people are not to be trusted as they “are creatures”.
This is a man who cannot entertain another’s perspective of life, or the world, in case it undermines his own. He has been hurt, deeply. He is a boy trapped in a man’s body. Scrooge’s vulnerability, which he thinks is fully masked, seeps through enough for Bob and his cheery nephew Fred (Fred Haig) to see something redeemable in a man the townsfolk despair of.
The arrival of Jacob Marley, wrapped in life-sized chains, alerts Scrooge to the spirits’ arrival – and signposts the audience to the visual spectacle to come. Filled with dread, surrounded by smoke, booming sound effects and a driving musical score, Marley’s entrance is like watching a spooky movie.
This experience is amplified by the production being set in the round; the stage connected by four walkways. The whole theatre is used, from the rafters to the basement. Door frames spring up from the stage floor. Creaky doors open and close by sound effects alone. Christmas dinner, from turkey to brussel sprouts, is shuttled from the upper circle to the stage on long white sheets. Set designer Ben Davies’ imagination has been used to impressive effect.
All the spirits are wonderfully played by women of different ages and races (Myra McFadyen, Gloria Onitiri and Melissa Allan). They are full of humour, banter and pathos, and bring a vibe of modernity, reinforced by Irene Bohan’s edgy costumes that could have been designed by Alexander McQueen or Vivienne Westwood.
What feels different from other adaptations is the elevation of Scrooge’s backstory – particularly the misuse and abuse by his father. An alcoholic, he manipulates Scrooge to bankroll the family, without thanks, forcing him to abandon his dreams – and the love of his life Belle (Rebecca Trehearn).
Paterson Joseph is a force of nature. He skilfully reflects the lost boy within and displays the internal struggle to hold on to what feels safe, despite it crushing his spirit. The ensemble cast reflect great range as they sing, act, dance and play instruments with great charm and enthusiasm.
When Scrooge ‘sees the light’ and endeavours to put right his wrongs, it errs the right side of schmaltzy – just, including when the audience is encouraged to be part of Scrooge’s rebirth, during the Christmas dinner scene. There is a lovely touch when fake snowflakes drift from the rafters and fall onto the audience to audible sighs of delight.
A Christmas Carol is a charmer of a play. You can’t help but smile and Joseph’s Scrooge is multi-faceted, energetic and believable. Matthew Warchus works him hard, but Joseph doesn’t lose his way – or our attention.
You will have to dig deep to buy a ticket (they don’t come cheap), but if you want something that feels like a treat, then this is the show for you.
A Christmas Carol will be at The Old Vic until 18 January 2020