Oh, it’s a very classy show this; Rob Howell’s twinkling lantern constellation, truly inky-black period costumes, Michael Faber writing the programme essay, the full voices of the carolers, the free Waitrose mince pies offered as you enter. It’s like those Christmas selections that come in an actual tin with some of the biscuits so posh they warrant their own silver foil. In a new adaption by Jack Thorne, The Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is the archetypal holiday tale of salvation and deliverance delivered in rich oil paints. Our original sinner Ebenezer Scrooge (Rhys Ifans) must repent by morning or die a lonely awful death haunted by the disabled child he inadvertently killed through his penny pinching. Ho, Ho Ho and mulled wine for all.
Thorne’s loyalty to Dickens’ original text sees chunks of the narrative relayed in unison by the cast to an effect that is less fireside story, more Dalek. We are into the ghost story so fast that it seems we will all be done and gift wrapped before the interval. This doesn’t give Ifans the time to demonstrate the miserly nastiness of Scrooge, or give us much of a chance to warm to John Dagleish’s affable Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is a tricky character to pull off without him coming over as a massive wimp (no one needs to drink to abusive employers at Christmas) but Dagleish’s utter sweetness and playfulness with Tiny Tim is believable without being saccharine. Thankfully, the group narration all but disappears in the second act with the some of the best moments coming from ad libs. With more space, Ifans firmly finds a foothold in the character of Scrooge which shines through his redemption. A moment of wounded clarity as he gazes on his child self: ‘What would you have him be when he grows up?’ ‘I just don’t want him to be me’. However, he doesn’t come over pure sugar plum, even ‘good’ Scrooge can’t resist pointing out how little time he has for ‘God rest ye Merry gentleman’ even if Marley (Alex Gaumond) is in surprisingly good voice for someone in tormented purgatory.
Matthew Warchus’s direction manages to avoid becoming overly worthy through the carnival-esque capers that take over once (spoiler) Scrooge realises that Christmas might not be so much of a humbug after all. Audience participation, flying sprouts and the transformation of Ifans from curmudgeonly ghoul to manic-pixie dream boy stop the show being a Victorian morality tale. It’s a joyous, unadulterated silliness appropriate to the time of year.
Warchus’s production errs just on the right side of sophisticated yet festive. On the night I attended, the upper circle was packed with what appeared to be children and teenagers. For such an age group to give THAT an enthusiastic encore to hand bells really says more about the magic created here than anything I could write. As the audience tentatively joined in with ‘Silent Night’, some still with the foam of the preceding sfx snow storm in their hair, a stillness settled over the auditorium. A refined festive feeling indeed, and a sudden craving for the first mulled wine of the season.
A Christmas Carol is on until 20 January 2018 at the Old Vic Theatre. Click here for more details.