Returning to the Arts Theatre for a second year, Simon Callow’s one-man performance of A Christmas Carol – inspired by Charles Dickens’ popular public readings of the story – already feels like a festive ritual. It’s a well-crafted piece of seasonal cheer that warms the heart even if it doesn’t plumb the darkest depths of Dickens’s social parable about the most famous miser in fiction, Ebenezer Scrooge.
As we end Dickens’ bicentenary year, we have heard much about his personal life. A philanderer as much as a philanthropist, late in his marriage he attempted to leave his wife for a teenage actress. But if the man had feet of clay, the social conscience of his prose has travelled as easily through time as the spirits who show Scrooge the error of his ways.
If Dickens’ vision of the sainted poor and the evil rich cloaked, like his public image, a more complicated reality, the force of his anger still carries today. Fairytale or happy endings are reassuring, but – as our economic winter bites ever deeper – they are also reminders of how far the real world falls short.
Clean-shaven and anonymously dressed in a baggy overcoat and scarf, Callow is Dickens distilled; not the Victorian author himself, but his essence as a storyteller for every age. This low-key appearance, and a stage bare apart from two sets of stacked chairs on either side, says: this is about words not spectacle. It’s also about Callow’s delivery, which envelops you like a blanket on a winter’s night.
Listening to Dickens’ sentences bloom into life in Callow’s voice is a pleasure, refreshing a story made over-familiar by the glare of film and TV. Much of the joy lies in hearing descriptions spoken aloud that would never make a script: clock-faces chattering in the cold; Mrs Fezziwig swooping into her husband’s party as substantial as a smile; Marley’s ghostly door-knocker face resembling a lobster kept too long in the cellar. If Scrooge is marked by a lack of imagination, the language of his story is gloriously the opposite.
Dickens uses words like colourful building blocks, constructing a London cemented with wry humour and buzzing with life. If he despairs of its treatment of the poor, his love of its noise and energy comes through in Callow’s exuberant delivery. Under Tom Cairns’ canny direction, he sends our gaze all over the stage, conjuring Christmas parties and the throng of a turkey-buying crowd out of some well-placed chairs. Spotlights pick out moments in Callow’s performance, blending with his pauses to create spaces for our imagination to do the rest.
Aided by a stage curtain and some well-timed sound effects, Callow evokes the spirits of past, present and future well, although the graveside horror of Scrooge’s final trip is disappointingly muted. His slack-jawed account of the tormented spirits of the greedy writhing in chains in the night sky is chillingly vivid: one of the few occasions when this becomes a truly ghostly story.
The story’s sharper edges are blunted by a Scrooge presented as testily unpleasant rather than truly cruel. Behind his supernatural redemption is the very human horror of a society that flung its poor into workhouses or prisons: the grotesquely malnourished children, Want and Ignorance, who hide within the folds of the gown of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
But this is a production with its eye on pleasing the crowd. Like Dickens in his day, Callow is thoroughly at home with this kind of public reading, drawing us in with conspiratorial asides and his gleeful enactment of lisping ladies, jolly drunkards and cheeky cockney children. The result is as richly satisfying as turkey and mince pies in front of a blazing fire.