Writer: David Edgar, from the book by Charles Dickens
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: James Garrington
When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, he lived in a country full of great poverty. The Poor Laws allowed people to be sent to the Workhouse to claim relief, debtors were imprisoned – including, for a period, his own father – and even very young children were often forced to work long hours in appalling conditions simply to survive. Dickens became passionate about trying to improve their plight, writing A Christmas Carol to support that aim.
Although this adaptation by David Edgar includes some pieces of dialogue that will be familiar to anyone who knows the original book, the theme and underlying message have been shifted to give rather more emphasis to the social conditions of the period than is often found. This is apparent right from the start, as we find Dickens describing some of the deprivation to his editor John Forster, with talk of doing something to make a difference. Forster persuades him to write a book instead, and throughout the performance these two regularly pop up to discuss where the story should go next. This adds an initially interesting and unusual twist to the play, though over time there is a danger of it becoming a distraction from the business of actually telling the story – a small criticism of an otherwise excellent production.
The story is well-known of course – Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Marley and Tiny Tim, the spirits who visit Scrooge, and his transformation from Christmas-hating miser to generous lover of the festive season is a classic tale that has been told in many forms over the years. David Edgar’s adaptation retains the overall message of redemption while introducing a lot of humour as a counterpoint to the social commentary. His supporting characters have amusing names with a modern twist – Trowell and Tibshelf the charity workers, and Snapchat, Tumbler and Uber at Fezziwig’s party – as well as a political joke or two.
Any production of A Christmas Carol can only be as good as its central character, and Phil Davis shines in the role of Scrooge. From the ill-tempered grouch that we all expect to find at the start, he moves through a nicely-judged state of bewilderment before reaching despair and resignation when he feels that it is all too late for him. He is hardly off stage throughout the performance, and although he is often only an observer of events unfolding around him his feelings and emotions at the stories he is witnessing are clearly apparent. Davis shares the stage with a large cast, including a number of children who all hold their own among the more experienced adults.
Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a superb set, which allows the action to flow without pause through a number of different locations both indoors and out, which, partnered with Tim Mitchell’s excellent lighting, provides an atmospheric and evocative setting for the production.
This is a very good production with some excellent performances, adapted in a way that gives it a modern twist, making it feel accessible to audience members of all ages. It takes the classic image of the Victorian Christmas, and reminds us that the picture often seen on Christmas cards is idealised, and for many, it was far from reality. Heartwarming and with a dark undercurrent, it is highly recommended if you want an alternative to the superficial glitter and sparkle found in many productions at this time of year.
Runs until 4 February 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC