REVIEW: A Christmas Carol
This joyous festive smash-hit at the RST, Stratford-upon-Avon, gets a reboot and a new cast, including Aden Gillett as Scrooge.
David Edgar’s witty, exhilarating and uplifting adaptation of Charles Dickens’ festive tale of redemption was a by sell-out audiences last year. A real Christmas treat it’s back at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, for a second helping this winter season with a new cast; as is Matthew Warchus’ production at the Old Vic, London, starring Stephen Tompkinson. A popular choice for these ‘hard times’.
Aden Gillett takes over the role of Ebenezer Scrooge from Phil Davis. Tall, lean and high cheek-boned, he cuts an elegant figure as the wealthy penny-pinching money-lender who gets to review his life.
It deftly opens as a story-within-a story with the 31-year-old Victorian author – a charmingly vivacious Joseph Timms – as excitable narrator discussing the plot with his editor and good friend John Forster, played again by Beruce Khan. Forster convinces Dickens that a short story rather than a political pamphlet would better stand the test of time. The pair provide a lively running commentary, with Timms also pitching in to play the young Scrooge.
This simple but cunning technique offers a fascinating insight into Dickens himself and the social context which inspired him to write his 1843 novella. As a 12-year-old he was sent out to work at a boot-blacking factory after his father was imprisoned in debtor’s jail. The play intelligently homes in on the writer’s humanitarian concerns for the political injustices of child labour, poverty and lack of regulation. “No words can express the agony of the soul,” he says revealing that children as young as four worked 12 – 18 hours a day. At two hours 6 minutes it’s short compared to Birmingham-born Edgar’s award-winning adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby – which was eight-and-a-half hours!
Rachel Kavanaugh’s vibrant, polished production is from the start spellbinding as the bare, dark grey cobble stage dramatically opens into a busy Victorian London street-scene with carol singers and falling snow. Scrooge’s office is set in front of a wonderfully gloomy backdrop of grey tenements. We meet the “appalling misanthrope” in all his Bah humbug! glory refusing to back down on a £5 debt owed on Christmas Day by a mother holding a crying baby and begrudgingly giving his only employee Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off.
As Scrooge comes face-to-face with the ghost of his deceased business Joseph Marley, chained and tormented, he asks: “Am I dreaming you?”. He puts his hand straight through his midriff to check complete with squelching sound effects. Other trickery involves his levitating four-poster bed. When Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three more sprites he drily asks: “Is that really necessary?”
The Ghost of Christmas Past – Claire Carrie – takes him back to his childhood and early twenties. Cleverly this takes place in front of a full-screen film projections including an idyllic countryside scene which looks like a landscape painting. Clive Haywood is amusing as the kindly, larger-than-life eccentric Mr Fezziwig – Scrooge’s first boss. In a jolly Christmas party scene, he kisses Mrs Fezziwig three times under the Mistletoe to test it’s in “perfect working order” and rips up owed debts. We see the unfolding flirtation between Scrooge and his ex-fiancé – Fezziwig’s daughter, Isabel, nicely played by Jessica Murrain. This year Edgar has written in four new Dickens-like characters – Herr Uber, Mr Tumbler, Mrs Snapchat and Master Tinder.
Danielle Henry’s ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present is a sassy Northern fairy god-mother covered in ivy and greenery sat on a throne surrounded by food. “Fancy a chicken leg? “she asks Scrooge before taking him on a Mary Poppins-style trip above the city’s chimney tops on a Persian rug to view life the reality of in the factories, ships and mines below. “I’m not so comfortable with heights” he murmurs.
Many of the original cast have returned including Gerard Carey and Emma Pallant, excellent as Bob Cratchit and his wife. The Cratchit family’s touching Christmas dinner is beautifully played out – with especially lovely performances by the six young actors playing their children. Carey gets the biggest applause of the night when Cratchit finally confronts Scrooge about his pay and conditions. “You can stuff your job with sage-and-onion stuffing and a potato on the side!” he shouts triumphantly, moments before realising his boss’s sudden conversion.
Edgar’s superbly fresh take on Dickens’ story is a warm reminder of the importance of family and compassion, yet not overly sentimental. The philanthropic conversion of Gillett’s magnetic Scrooge is a joy to watch and there are lots of witty one-liners – including a Trump joke – a wonderful cast and fabulously choreographed dance sequences. A marvellously absorbing and heart-melting night out at the theatre, perfect for older children who may have grown out of panto. I took my 15-year-old and even she was impressed!
A Christmas Carol at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, runs until Jan 20 2019, rsc