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Review: A Christmas Carol (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Review by Raphael Kohn


It’s never too early for Christmas, is it? We’re barely into November, and yet the festivities are certainly starting in Stratford-upon-Avon as the Royal Shakespeare Company brings Dickens’ ever-famous story to the stage in David Edgar’s 2017 adaptation.


The plot is one we all know and love - the transformation of the miserly Scrooge through the visitations of his dead business partner and three ghosts across the course of Christmas Eve as he learns to love Christmas and his fellow people, setting aside his love of money to embrace the warmth of Christmas.



To prevent this from being overly familiar and to distinguish it from every single other production of A Christmas Carol (and there seem to be many on the stages of the United Kingdom at the moment), this production adds in several new elements, such as the framing of the whole piece by actors playing the parts of Charles Dickens and his friend, John Forster (played by Gavin Fowler and Beruce Khan respectively), who narrate and discuss the events of the play throughout. This sets a rather political tone to the play, setting it against the backdrop of poverty and destitution in Victorian times, with Dickens initially planning the story as a rallying cry to support the needy.


Perhaps starting in this way is where the piece falls down slightly. Adrian Edmonson, a comedian at heart, plays Scrooge as a primarily comic part, and he’s incredibly funny in the role. I’m sure the children in the audience (who seemed to fill the entire balcony) adored his performance, but for me, his portrayal relied on a single facial expression and gait, which lost Scrooge’s growth and journey in its permanency. However, against the political undertones that come back time and time again in Dickens’ interjections and the other characters, such as the Cratchits, the tonal contrast just didn’t seem to work very well for me, and the show could have perhaps done with a touch more focus on the political, or the comedy, instead of trying to find a balance between the two. There was only one moment where this worked for me – a fantastically-timed joke from Edmonson’s Scrooge about recent British politics that seemingly came out of nowhere – but on the whole, I felt as if the tone could have done with more consistency.



Thankfully, the ensemble as a whole are spectacular performers who keep the production going strongly, especially the children. On the night I saw the performance, Gracie Coates played the role of Tiny Tim with such charm and wit that she entirely stole the show from the adult actors around her.


The 2-and-a-half hours of this play are absolutely full of moments that will stay with me for a while, such as an absolutely spectacular tableau of the workers, shrouded in smoke, emerging from the back wall of the stage as Scrooge begins to see the effect of his actions and the broader context of his privilege, as well as the Ghost of Christmas Present’s journey with Scrooge on a carpet, filling the entire auditorium with stage smoke, wafted around by the fantastic costumes with wide, flowing dresses and smart top hats and tails. I nearly did three ships in my pants at one moment, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is revealed. The stains on my sleeve from my interval drink that soaked my shirt and spilt all over the floor speak for themselves as I jumped out of my seat (along with much of the audience).



Unfortunately, for a production that credits Ben Hart for ‘Illusions’, these seemed to be somewhat few and far between, although the illusions that do take place are rather spectacular indeed, designed, choreographed and performed to perfection.


I had expected to arrive at the RSC to see a play and was pleasantly surprised to see the integration of music into the show. While certainly not a musical, the show is propelled forward by the music and dance, for example, a lovely dance sequence at Fezziwig’s Christmas party. This moment truly brought a warm sense of Christmas spirit into the audience and put a smile on the whole audience’s faces. This is complemented by the occasional underscoring of scenes with music that often recalled Christmas Carols in its themes, penned by Catherine Jayes.



I left the theatre feeling a modest sense of Christmas warmth. It wasn’t a hearty cup of mulled wine by the fire of a Christmas comedy, nor was it a bag of frozen brussels sprouts of a ghost story, but it brought a Christmas spirit to the theatre once again with an incredibly talented ensemble of performers.


★★★★


A Christmas Carol plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 1st January 2023. Tickets available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/


Photos by Manuel Harlan


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