Not the Dickens we know
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol
A director aiming to do A Christmas Carol around Christmas time will struggle to find something no director has done before. Jack Thorne is responsible for the adaptation and has worked hard with Matthew Warchus to distinguish their production from everyone else’s.
The very traditional Old Vic theatre has been made to feel distinctly un-traditional. A long pier has been built down the middle of the auditorium, the stage has been pushed forward into the auditorium beyond the proscenium arch, and the lost front few rows of the stalls have been replaced by turning the stage into an additional auditorium.
It’s not exactly in the round – the actors have audiences in front of them and behind them, which means they can either address one audience or the other, and they occasionally and unavoidably mask each other.
As the audience assembles, actors in Victorian costumes walk along the pier and throw oranges to them. Mince pies are also available, but Warchus has wisely decided against having them thrown: an actor stands with a tray, and gives them away, looking rather as though she were selling ice cream.
The show proper begins with a lot of exposition – Jack Thorne might have found a neater way to give information to the audience. But at last we meet Christopher Eccleston’s more than usually sympathetic Scrooge, and the show really gets under way.
And once it moves, it moves fast and joyously. It zips at breakneck speed through the familiar tale, with lots of fun and lots of audience participation, and lots of music and singing and dancing. “I didn’t know you could sing, Jacob Marley” says Scrooge at one point, and neither did I. It’s all performed against Rob Howell’s technically inventive set and Hugh Vanstone’s imaginative lighting plot – Victorian lamps hang from the ceiling of the whole theatre and are lit at strategic moments, and Scrooge’s office is created with door frames you can see through, which are bolted realistically with the aid of emphatic music. At one point imitation snow falls on the audience.
There’s a delightful cast, all energy and fun and music. Rob Compton is a compelling downtrodden Bob Cratchit, and Frances McNamee a smart, assured Belle. Four children share the part of Tiny Tim. The night I saw it, Freddie Merritt brought just the right level of sassy confidence to the part.
All in all, it’s an enjoyable night in the theatre. But when it comes to telling the story, I found it unsatisfying. Of course Warchus can rely on his audience knowing the story, and he relies on this rather too heavily.
Eccleston has to shift very abruptly, and not entirely convincingly, from mean Scrooge to benevolent Scrooge. If I had not expected it, I don’t think I would have caught the moment we move from real time to a dream sequence. And it did not help to put all three ghosts in the same dress, so there were times when I was not sure whether I was listening to Christmas Past or Christmas Yet to Come. And I felt it was cheating to have an undertaker carry Tiny Tim offstage at the end of the first act. Tiny Tim doesn’t die.
And in the end, when it comes to sending the audience away with Dickens’s message, the show takes the easy way out, telling us we all need to be kind to each other, as there are 14 million people living in poverty, and the staff will take donations for a local charity as you go out, thank you very much.
Dickens was an angry propagandist for the poor, not a tame charity collector. He didn’t want to alleviate the lot of a few of the poor by putting some coins into a bucket; he wanted to show us that poverty is not forgivable in a wealthy society. It’s not a fashionable message, but I don’t like seeing A Christmas Carol done without it.
Editor’s Note: A Christmas Carol is an annual event at the Old Vic our last review was in 2021
A Christmas Carol
Adapted by Jack Thorne from Charles Dickens
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Gemma Knight Jones
Director: Matthew Warchus
Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Designer: Simon Baker
Composer: Christopher Nightingale
Running Time: Two hours including an interval
Booking to 6th January 2024
London SE1 8NB
Tube/Rail : Waterloo
Telephone: 0344 871 7628
Reviewed by Francis Beckett
at the Old Vic
at the evening performance
on 6th December 2023