Matthew Warchus’ joyous adaptation of A Christmas Carol returns to the Old Vic, only this time with Stephen Tompkinson in the miserly lead role, rather than Rhys Ifans.
Warchus is no stranger to adapting literary classics for the stage, having masterminded Matilda and The Lord of Rings previously. For Dickens’ greatest morality tale, he enlists the help of playwright Jack Thorne, who is currently enjoying enormous success both in the West End and on Broadway with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Rather like that play, this one often forgets to whack out the hits and is determined to find a deep Freudian complex wherever it can. Bafflingly, it omits Want and Ignorance, the children sheltered by the fur-trimmed coat of the Ghost of Christmas Present, who confront Scrooge with the human cost of his ‘are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’ rhetoric. This moment is described in the programme, by Dickens’ great great great granddaughter no less, as “the most important scene of A Christmas Carol” that’s “often left out of adaptations”. And so it is here in favour of some stuff about Scrooge’s father.
Though he’s an absent character in the novella, his decision to leave his son at boarding school over Christmas implies he is neglectul. In this version, though, he’s a debt-ridden alcoholic who steals Christmas presents from his own daughter.
It’s not the unfaithfulness that irks, it’s the implication that Scrooge’s original motivation – selfish greed – isn’t enough to make him a character worthy of redemption. Instead of redeeming himself through compassion for others, he seems on a quest to forgive his father and, subsequently, himself, which is all rather navel-gazing and not in the spirit of the season at all.
Where the script looks inwards, the staging throws the story out to the audience, involving us in everything from snow storms to preparing the Christmas feast. We sit in the round like a right Dickensian rabble, with a wooden runway extending from one end of the theatre to the other, on which characters prowl, and stomp and drag their ponderous chains.
Where Dickens’ ghosts are passive creatures, pointing wordlessly at shadowy futures, these ones are energetically involved in Scrooge’s rehabilitation, even hectoring in the case of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Though this won’t be to purists’ taste, it did make Tompkinson’s job easier. Instead of having to look quietly contemplative at his poverty-stricken clerk, he could just scream “it’s not my fault!” at a ghost and know there was a decent argument on the cards.
Though it meanders its way there, the Christmas Day payoff is sensational. The musical arrangements of Victorian carols, both sung by the cast and rung by them on handheld bells, are mesmerising. As such, it’s impossible not to leave the theatre with a festive grin and a tear in your eye.