Reviews West End & Central Published 12 December 2011

A Christmas Carol

Arts Theatre ⋄ 8th December 2011 – 14th January 2012

A Dickens classic presented classically.

Stewart Pringle

When A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843, news of it was spread with almost evangelical fervour. Copies sold in their thousands, its appeal spreading across class barriers, its message repeated from pulpits and soap boxes, as supernatural mystery or socialist manifesto. Three months after the first edition went on sale, there were eight stage adaptations running simultaneously, and though it has never fallen out of print, it is in performance that it has found its most popular longevity.

The tale of a miserly utilitarian and the ghostly quartet who awaken him to the joys of Christmas has been adapted many hundreds of times. It has been visited by the Muppets, Brer Rabbit, Barbie and the Simpsons, and the last decade alone has seen performers as diverse as Nicholas Cage and Jim Carrey tackle the role of Scrooge. There’s even a game for the Nintendo DS, where you can pelt urchins with snowballs or ruin your Nephew Fred’s party by screwing up ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ on the upright piano. In the midst of this brilliant lunacy Rent-a-Dickens Simon Callow has returned to London with his quiet, haunting one-man rendition. Callow’s version places the language of the text at its centre, eschewing the distractions of showy effects and illusion for a welcome re-emphasis on the wit and imagination of Dickens’ writing. This Christmas Carol is unlike Patrick Stewart’s acclaimed performance, in which he totally inhabited the role of Scrooge and from that icy persona reached out to the rest of the story, here we are never in any doubt that Callow is Dickens, he is a story-teller and we are gathered to listen and not to watch.

Callow makes only the smallest concessions to character differentiation, like the best story-tellers he allows the language and the events to speak for themselves. Callow’s version of the text contains several cuts, and some sections such as the wrangling over bed-curtains in Old Joe’s miserable shop are sorely missed, but with the eye of a true connoisseur, Callow finds a number of beautiful moments that have evaded the eye of recent adaptors. Those who side with the dastardly F R Leavis in considering Dickens to be hamstrung by his florid prose will find no respite from it here, but those of us who relish the ghoulish descriptions of Marley’s ghost (‘like a bad lobster in a dark cellar’) and the great anthropomorphic London Dickens creates will find new reasons to fetch down the book again this Christmas.

If there are drawbacks to this approach, they are only that Callow spends rather a lot of the time literally hovering between two chairs, unwilling to occupy either character within a scene and so suspended between both. Coming close to missing his stool altogether at one point, it’s edge of the seat stuff, though not I think intentionally so. In comparison with his earlier Being Shakespeare we also miss Callow’s own personality in this performance. Callow’s charm and digressive enthusiasm there made an engrossing framing device for the texts, and the briefest introduction could help to prime us for a story he so obviously adores. In its place, however, is a strong and persuasive atmosphere of gloom and the uncanny. Tom Cairns’ direction and design do a lot with very little, with a clock materialising through the fog like a great stained eye and a minimal but effective use of shadows and falling snow.

This is a classic ghost story for Christmas presented classically, but Callow’s few concessions to modernity – the references to spirits chained together and drowning in hellish despair ‘like two governments’ and the rage with which he imparts the meeting with Ignorance and Want – are stark reminders that the book’s interest and Callow’s interest in the book are by no means purely nostalgic or historical. A Christmas Carol was intended as a “sledge-hammer blow” to apathy and greed, and it’s one which rings out all the more powerfully when the Muppets (however glorious) are left in the wings.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

A Christmas Carol Show Info

Directed by Tom Cairns

Cast includes Simon Callow


Running Time 1 hr 30 mins (no interval)



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