Charles Dickens’ immortal classic A Christmas Carol has returned to the Old Vic with Matthew Warchus directing Jack Thorne’s wonderful new adaptation of this family favourite. A Christmas Carol has been a popular outing for theatergoers every single Christmas; as the days get colder and the nights get darker, productions of A Christmas Carol get announced, however, this rendition is one that certainly stands out from the crowd.
The magnificent staging put together by Matthew Warchus provides everything that any theatergoer might expect and want from a theatrical adaptation of Dickens’s timeless tale; which ultimately urges social responsibility and compassion for our fellow man. The Old Vic becomes redesigned in ways that mix the macabre and the festive, the spooky and the merry. The new adaptation by Jack Thorne (who you may recognise from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) uses this creepy set as a metaphor and the perfect staging to display Scrooge’s damaged personality; and works perfectly as the backdrop during his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and to come. Skeletal door frames rise up from the floor to create rooms and Scrooge’s highly protected money boxes slot perfectly into the floor like buried treasure.
A great walkway runs through the stalls towards the centre in which the story is told; this entrance makes for some wonderful character introductions to certain scenes. This is emphasised when the Ghost of Marley arrives trailing chains that clank the entire length of the stalls. Lanterns are used to light the stage and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is absolutely awe-inspiring and truly helps to draw the audience in. Christopher Nightingale’s magical music carries the whole show forward and supports the journey of the story from start to finish. Some of the carols are ringing on handbells by the cast, as in the ethereal shimmer and slight mischief of the rendering of “Silent Night” which is played as an encore. Once again, the carols help to portray the joyless and perhaps soulless personality. So the blast of rapture in the sequence where he opens his heart to love again is just as heart opening as what Scrooge himself must feel in the scene.
Stephen Tompkinson gives a truly remarkable performance. Some would argue that his natural demeanour and appearance is somewhat made for Scrooge and fits in perfectly with the character. Of course, Scrooge is a character who has a very stern view towards the poor; and in fact, thinks that a side benefit of the poor house is that it helps to decrease the surplus population. In this adaptation by Jack Thorne, Scrooge has been ill-equipped with a cruel and debt-ridden father who makes contemptuous and hard demands on his son which forces him into an early apprenticeship. This allows us to see how a boy can be misshapen and how these early knocks can distort a persons’ personality into making an idol of money and riches in an effort to be invulnerable; then losing a chance of love by not returning to reclaim Belle in time.
The entire cast flit between the roles in an almost ghostly fashion. Scrooge’s old sweetheart Belle as we mentioned before (played by Frances McNamee) is given a lot more character and closure than she is normally offered and is played with the utmost grace and warmth. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Nicola Hughes is a very charming character and displays a lot of wonderful warmth throughout the production.
Many a theatergoer will find this a very fun, witty and yet deeply affecting take on A Christmas Carol. If you have seen other renditions before and think you know the story; you still need to watch this! It is a whole new spin on an absolute classic! The bit that made me crack in this version was where Scrooge’s 12-year-old self hops onto his future coffin and sits clutching the parrot puppet beloved from his Robinson Crusoe games. Rhys climbs up and clutches the boy’s head, looking at him with infinite sorrow: “I don’t want him to be me”.
Rhys plays the part of Scrooge incredibly well in an ingenious way. Every stage of Scrooge’s life is played out perfectly; dare we say that Rhys was born for this role? There is rough, furious denial and vulnerability at the core. I won’t give away by what droll devices he gets the audience involved in the preparation of a massive Christmas feast to take round to the Cratchits. But he has a great rapport with Leo Lake’s nicely irreverent Tiny Tim (one of four young people playing the role) and the casting and the concepts seem to me to be spot on. All of the spirits are females and one does look to be the echoes of Scrooge’s adored late sister, Little Fan.
Overall this is a beautiful adaptation and one that helps to put a whole new perspective on a story many will feel that they know. For those who feel that they know the story inside and out then I still urge you to go and see this wonderful play. The story has been given a whole new depth which is brought out by the incredible set, the music, and of course, the cast. You are merely transported into a world of days gone by and it is hard to remember that you are in the Old Vic and not in fact in the middle of a Victorian town.
Do go and see this whilst you can, and be sure to take some tissues. You are in for an incredible roller coaster ride of emotion that is always a perfect tale at this time of year.