Charles Dickens’ abiding popularity has been achieved as much through dramatisation as publication, perhaps more so in the case of A Christmas Carol of which, since the mid-twentieth century, there have been over 250 stage and film adaptations. At the time of writing there is Jack Thorne’s production at The Old Vic, this adaptation by David Edgar at the RSC and a biopic exploring the origins of A Christmas Carol called The Man Who Invented Christmas. BBC1 also aired the recent comedy spin-off A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong starring Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg.
Part of the enduring appeal of A Christmas Carol is, of course, its powerful encapsulation of the Christmas spirit, which in so many ways Dickens helped to define. But it also helps greatly that its simple progressive form, elegantly Aristotelian in structure, eagerly lends itself to dramatic adaptation. The first chapter establishes Scrooge as a misanthrope of the highest order, the three subsequent chapters each report the visits of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and the final brief chapter presents a freshly energised Scrooge glowing with goodwill.
In Edgar’s dextorous adaptation Dickens and his editor, John Forster, become part of the play, which begins with the author raging about child labour and the tract he intends to write about it. Forster, however, turns him towards the idea of a tale that will have more reach, one which they themselves become part of (Dickens as a young Scrooge, Forster as the young Marley) as it unfolds.
The meta-narrative confers a certain Brechtian quality to the performance, foregrounding the urgent political message woven in the fabric of Dickens’ story: that child poverty is a rectifiable evil, if only we would do something about it. Director Rachel Kavanaugh’s production celebrates this element in a production thronged with children – even the diminutive ghost of Christmas Past is played by child-actor Esme Fleeman. Incidentally, all three Christmas ghosts are played by female performers, thus undermining the patriarchal assumptions of the original text.
Set largely against the grim, hulking edifice of a Victorian tenement, Phil Davis’s Scrooge scowls and scuttles his way across the stage like an ill-tempered terrier. In his mean little office, where Garard Carey’s earnest Bob Cratchit toils ceaselessly in the background, his fists are permanently clenched, his grizzled features set against the world, and he barks out his ‘bahs!’ and his ‘humbugs’ as though on impulse. Cratchit’s transformation is comically repellent and reminiscent of Adrian Edmondson’s Malvolio who, in a production that shares the same stage, melts miraculously into a smiling grotesque.
This is a fluidly staged production and some of the picture postcard visuals are gorgeous to behold. Sat atop a flying carpet, Scrooge is whisked across fields, cities and oceans courtesy of a film projection that, at other times, takes on a Turneresque quality. Phantoms are conjured out of the smoke that billows from a miserable fire, the four-poster bed levitates to expose the entrance to the underworld, and at one point Scrooge’s hand seems to pass right through Marley’s body.
This constant round of stage movement and wizardry is mostly a strength, and certainly popular among the many young audience members, but after a while I began to feel something approaching motion sickness: there were parts when I wanted to settle on a scene and linger there a while longer. Dickens’ tale rarely stands still, spinning us across decades and terrain in seconds, yet while the RSC do a valiant job of keeping up, the effortlessness of a few syllables on the page can occasionally feel overly mechanical on stage.
Perhaps one of Edgar’s most triumphant re-writes is Bob Cratchit’s encounter with Scrooge when, having arrived late for work, the reformed businessman pretends to upbraid him before revealing his new self and pouring gifts on his employee. Bob, having heeded only Scrooge’s reprimand, begins to vent all his bitterness in an angry monologue broken only by Scrooge’s ever increasing, unheard promises of financial generosity.
Finally, Bob punches the air with exaltation before storming out of the office for good, only for him to return, incredulous, several seconds later when Scrooge’s miraculous words have percolated through to his consciousness. This comic scene is a satisfying have-your-cake-and-eat-it moment: the ever-enduring Cratchit gets to say what he could never say in Dickens’ original, yet still benefits from Scrooge’s newfound philanthropy.
It is with such craft that Edgar famously adapted Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC in 1980, creating for them an eight-and-a-half-hour version which became one of their biggest hits. And while, forty years later, this Christmas package is somewhat smaller, it both echoes and perpetuates the ‘prodigious success’ Dickens so ecstatically created almost two centuries ago.
A Christmas Carol is on until 4 February 2018 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Click here for more details.