Review by Daz Gale
When we think of theatre traditions when it comes to Christmas, the first type of show that comes to mind is a pantomime. However, the Old Vic has created a new theatre tradition of their own in Christmases past with their much-loved adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. A Christmas staple of its own since the story was first published in 1843, it has become London’s longest-running annual production of the classic now returning to Christmas present for its 7th year, but with its latest star casting, will it still be able to provide a feast of entertainment or would it be a ghost of its former self?
For anyone who has been living under a giant candy cane (rock didn’t feel festive enough) for the past 200 years, A Christmas Carol tells the story of old miser Ebeneezer Scrooge who isn’t quite filled with Christmas spirit. That is until one Christmas Eve when he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. These spirits attempt to show him the man he has become, the impact his actions have had on those around him, and what the world will be like if he doesn’t change his ways. To say it is a Christmas classic is an understatement with no less than five productions reviewed on this website last year alone. There is something about the Old Vic production, however, which sets it apart from the others.
Adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne, this version of A Christmas Carol retains the heart of the story and much of the dialogue, keeping it in its initial setting while adding its own little modern touches in there (including a brilliant revelation from one of the ghosts). The delicate way this production manages to keep the traditional values we know and love from the story while bringing something new that very much sits alongside these classic tropes effortlessly is a testament to the care that has been poured into the writing.
Matthew Warchus is at the helm of this new production of A Christmas Carol, making it his own with in-spired choices. An ingenious touch is the use of Christmas carols soundtracking the story with twelve favourites present in this production, both sung and performed by bells in a beautiful addition to the story. Warchus’ direction brings his vision of Dickens’ world to life with staging that transforms the Old Vic into an in-the-round setting with half of the audience sat on the stage in an intimate, almost immersive staging. Rob Howell’s set design allows for some hidden tricks buried in the stage to help with these transitions, but it is the design of the beautiful lanterns that adorn the stage that truly takes your breath away.
Where I teased the word “immersive”, it is a moment nearing the show’s climax which really takes the fourth wall and shatters it completely in a truly heartwarming and joyous sequence. As the house lights come up, the audience is invited to help with the Christmas feast with all levels in the wonderful Old Vic expected to help out to bring all of the food to the stage. Expect fruit, a lot of sausages (can you ever have too much?), and flying sprouts. Yes, you read that right. On paper, the idea of this made me say “Bah, humbug” but you have to sit there and experience it to really appreciate its charm in a sequence that can warm even the coldest Scrooge. With cast members greeting you on arrival and offering you a complimentary mince pie or satsuma, this really does blur the line between theatre and experience but in doing so it truly gets you into the spirit of things. Oh, and look out for what is surely the best use of fake snow in a theatre production.
While many of the elements of this production remain unchanged each year, one varying aspect we have to look forward to is who they cast to star as Scrooge. Among the actors who have taken on the role in the past are Rhys Ifans, Andrew Lincoln, Stephen Mangan, and Owen Teale. This year, the honour falls to The Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, and what a performance he gives. As Scrooge, Eccleston delivers a masterclass performance, completely embodying the cold, brash nature of the iconic character in a performance so believable, that it is easy to forget you are watching an actor – one at the top of his game at that. It is the inevitable journey that Scrooge goes on that truly showcases the talents of Christopher Eccleston as his hard nature ebbs away. Stunningly tapping into the intricacies of the polar opposites, Eccleston heightens the emotional aspect of the character and ends up brimming with joy in a portrayal so infectious, that the audience couldn’t help but fall in love with him. If this production was already sensational in its own right, the inclusion of Christopher Eccleston’s Scrooge has made it even better.
A Christmas Carol is more than just one character though and the remainder of the cast more than match the brilliance set out by its leading man. Rob Compton gives a wonderful sensitive version of Bob Cratchit, with Frances McNamee lighting up the scenes she appears in as Belle. Alastair Parker delights as Fezziwig as does Rose Shalloo in her brief appearances as Little Fan. It is the ghosts who really get into the spirit of things with Julie Jupp stunning as a no-nonsense Ghost of Christmas Past and Gemma Knight Jones captivating as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Four young performers share the role of the absolutely scene-stealing Tiny Tim – in this performance, it was Freddie Marshall-Ellis who truly melted everyone’s heart when he uttered THAT immortal line.
Every element of this production is so flawlessly executed to create its own self-contained world that does what theatre does best, provide pure escapism. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting creates an atmospheric world that ties in to Simon Baker’s crystal clear sound to bring an ominous, foreboding nature to the supernatural elements at play here. With fabulous musical direction from Alan Berry and Mike Steel taking Christopher Nightingale’s arrangements, the music on offer brings another beautiful layer to an already wonderful story. The creative elements conclude with Lizzie Gee’s precise movement, bringing Warchus’ direction to life with distinct choreography.
It is no wonder why The Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol has become a favourite among so many over the past 7 years. I struggle to think of another show that captures the Christmas spirit as perfectly as this one does. The ability to forget the troubles of the outside world and fall in love with a story that predates us all is one of the things theatre does best and, in this production, Matthew Warchus and The Old Vic tap into that beautifully. As well regarded as this production has been in previous years, dare I say that this year might be its best yet, thanks in part to the mesmerising performance by Christopher Eccleston. I didn’t think I could have loved this show more than I did when I saw it last year. Turns out I was wrong. This may be the best Christmas show of the season and one I hope haunts The Old Vic for the foreseeable future.
A Christmas Carol plays at The Old Vic until 6th January 2024. Tickets from https://www.oldvictheatre.com/
This year, The Old Vic has partnered with City Harvest in the hopes of raising money at every performance. To donate, head to https://cityharvest.org.uk/donate/
Photos by Manuel Harlan