Writer: Jack Thorne
Director: Matthew Warchus
There are many markers that London has entered the festive season with A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic having firmly established itself as one of them. Playing annually since 2017, Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the much-loved Dickens classic has seen various star names take on the role of the miserly Mr Scrooge. This year the shoes are filled by Christopher Eccleston, and they fit him very well indeed.
Mince pies are on offer as the audience steps into a transformed Old Vic auditorium. Health and Safety bureaucracy thankfully does not prevent the odd satsuma being hurled at those who raise their hand in request. A cheerful atmosphere consumes the house from the off and it is not long before the crowd claps along as the carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen ushers us into the evening. With Jack Thorne having penned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and director Matthew Warchus being behind Matilda the Musical, the production values are invariably high. A long stage cuts the stalls in two, placing the audience around it. Spectators also spill onto the main stage area, thus creating an intimate feeling despite the spacious setting. Lanterns, which flicker as each of the ghosts appear, hang down from the ceiling, from which snow later falls.
Most will be familiar with Dickens’s yarn about the parsimonious, misanthropic businessman who finds Christmas and all it stands for utterly abhorrent. Visited on Christmas Eve by the spirit of his former business partner Jacob Marley, Scrooge is informed he will be confronted by three ghosts. That of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. Forced to face his behaviour and witness his transformation from innocent child to the belligerent and feared man he has become, Scrooge embarks on a life-changing experience from which he emerges a better person. A story of hope and redemption, it also addresses the issue of poverty as is common in much of Dickens’s work.
Eccleston effortlessly embodies the cantankerous demeanour of Scrooge. His movements, facial expression and barking voice paint a vivid picture of the man. At the same time, the actor alludes to the many vulnerabilities that inhabit his character internally. As with Dickens himself, Scrooge carries the weight of childhood trauma and the absence of love from a father he so desperately craved it from. It’s a nuanced portrayal that presents the character as more than an angry recluse but also someone with a myriad of thoughts that they are unable to process. Eccleston, of course, has a great deal of fun with it – especially once Scrooge has reached his turning point and adopted a new, positive outlook. While Eccleston delights, it is the ensemble that is the star of the show here. With precise choreography courtesy of Lizzi Gee, carol singing and audience interaction, this committed cast injects a great deal of fervour into proceedings and ensures we are fully drawn into the gothic Dickensian world.
Rob Compton is endearing as long-suffering clerk to Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, while Andrew Langtree helps us better understand why our protagonist is the way he is in his portrayal of Scrooge’s father. With excellent physicality, the actor conveys his character at various ages. Frances McNamee also impresses as former fiancé Belle. Young Freddie Marshall-Ellis as Tiny Tim commands the eyes of his adoring audience in a part that is rotated with three other child actors throughout the run. Despite being set in London, various accents are used among the cast, which is perhaps representative of the universal themes at the heart of the play.
Music composed and arranged by Christopher Nightingale forms a key element of the evening with Musical Directors Alan Berry and Mike Steel overseeing fine instrumentalists. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Rob Howell’s set and costume design complete the vibrant visual feast on offer. Carols permeate throughout and actors appear from all areas of the theatre with Eccleston at one point even shaking hands and wishing audience members a Merry Christmas. It’s an immersive, lively and pacy production that captures the essence of the story while placing its own memorable stamp on it. It is more than apparent why there is such an appetite to see this version of the play return year after year.
However, towards the end, we are pulled back to reality as Eccleston explains just how many members of society are still desperately in need all these years after Dickens wrote this tale. The production, across all the territories it has been performed in, has so far amassed an incredible £1.2 million for local good causes. While important messages sit at its core, this inventive incarnation of A Christmas Carol is guaranteed to leave you in good spirits.
Runs until 6 January 2024