Some might suggest that there’s something spookily portentous about Matthew Warchus’ choice of programming this year. For the ghost of Christmas past – Kevin Spacey – has been all too real for the Old Vic in the lead up to the opening of this year’s festive offering.
Dickens himself was originally inspired to write A Christmas Carol by the ills he saw around him. Not least the anger he felt at the plight of poor working-class children exploited by the Industrial Revolution. Given the current public debate about the wealthy’s contribution to society, Dickens’ 1843 tale of personal conscience and moral responsibility might be more relevant that ever.
Writer Jack Thorne, who also brought both Harry Potter & The Cursed Child and Let The Right In to the stage, has balanced this production perfectly. He doesn’t shirk the anger at social attitudes towards poverty, but also delivers a rousing festive feast that will leave even the most miserly curmudgeon filled with redemptive joy.
Rhys Ifans makes a fabulous Scrooge. Rakish in his long coat and straggly hair, and with an air of personal neglect, he gruffly barks at those around him. But his Ebenezer is not a wholly evil man. Thorne has woven in a poignant backstory in which his loveless, money-obsessed father sees only naked financial worth in his son, and shows how the emotional damage wrought during childhood gives birth to the uncaring man of the future. And Ifans excels at bringing pathos to a usually unsympathetic character.
Despite the miser at its core, this is a play full of heart and affection. Without giving away its secrets – of which there are many, including a provocative twist to the traditional ending – it shows how love rather than fear can be the greatest driver of compassion and goodwill.
The staging is simply exquisite. The stage snakes the full length of the Old Vic’s grand auditorium, while Scrooge’s counting house is framed by four hollow door frames, beneath a canopy of flickering lanterns. The spectral visitations and carol singing are beautifully rendered.
There’s not a weak link among the cast. John Dagleish is a fine Bob Cratchit, and Erin Doherty is particularly moving as Ebenezer’s lost love Belle. A special mention must go to the three ghosts of Christmas, Myra McFadyen, Golda Rosheuvel and Melissa Allan, for their refreshing take on the well known spirits.
This is a lovely production that all the family can enjoy. Dare I suggest it, it could even rival that obvious pinnacle of Dickens’ adaptations, The Muppet Christmas Carol.