The RSC’s A Christmas Carol
David Edgar’s superbly fresh take on Dickens’ festive novella stars Phil Davis on top Bah humbug form!
If ever a character actor was born to play misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge it was Phil Davis.
Essex-born Davis, the eternal ‘grumpy old man’ – always excellent at biting sarcasm and off-hand asides – was a brilliant casting choice.
David Edgar’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens festive tale of redemption at the RSC very effectively becomes a story-within-a story with the 31-year-old Victorian author – Nicholas Bishop – as narrator discussing the plot with his editor and friend John Forster, Beruce Khan.
This offers insight into Dickens himself and what inspired him to write his 1843 novel –his own experience as a 12-year-old sent out to work at a boot-blacking factory after his father was imprisoned in debtor’s jail. The play intelligently hones in on the writer’s humanitarian concerns for the political injustices of child labour, poverty and lack of regulation, without labouring the point.
Rachel Kavanaugh’s vibrant production is engaging from the start as the dark grey cobbled stage dramatically opens into a snowy Victorian street with Londoners to-ing and fro-ing, and carol singers. We’re whisked into Scrooge’s office – set before a wonderfully gloomy backdrop of tenements – and meet the money-lender in all his Bah humbug! glory refusing to back down on a debt owed on Christmas Day by a mother, baby-in-arms, and begrudgingly giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off.
As Scrooge comes face-to-face with his Christmas Past, Present and Future there’s a genuine air of eeriness with creepy special effects and illusions. Scrooge’s four-poster bed rises to reveal chained ghouls’ underneath. My 8-year-old clung to my arms at this point. “It was really good – just a teeny bit scary,” she said later.
Vivien Parry’s Ghost of Christmas Past is a brittle Victorian; while Brigid Zengeni’s Ghost of Christmas present is more of a sassy fairy god-mother offering Scrooge a chicken leg to chew on and taking him on a Mary Poppins journey above the city’s chimney tops to view life in the factories and mines below. “I’m rather scared of heights, “he murmurs.
Charismatic John Hodgkinson is highly entertaining as the kindly eccentric Mr Fezziwig – Scrooge’s first boss – in a jolly Christmas party scene where he grabs Mrs Fezziwig three times to ensure the Mistletoe is doing its job!
The Cratchit family’s touching Christmas dinner is beautifully played out –with especially lovely performances by Gerard Carey as Bob, and Jude Muir as Tiny Tim. With Brexit looming we may think the going’s getting tough, but those were definitely hard times…
Joseph Prowen is very good, too, as Fred Scrooge’s optimistic nephew, who touchingly puts a positive spin on his “appalling skinflint” uncle: “He’s never owed even a penny” and “works all the hours”.
Edgar’s superbly fresh take on Dickens’ story is a warm reminder of the importance of family and compassion, yet not overly sentimental. Scrooge’s philanthropic conversion is a joy to watch and there are lots of witty one-liners to enjoy in this uplifting, comic and heart-warming Christmas show.
A Christmas Carol at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon runs until Feb 4, rsc Running time: around 2 hours + 20 min interval