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A Christmas Carol – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Charles Dickens

Director: Rachel Kavanaugh

From proto-Punk-Metal explosive-brick chewing Vivian in the early 1980s TV series The Young Ones to an equally violent sociopath, Eddie, in the 1990s Bottom, The Reviews Hub, appositely, had Adrian Edmundson marked-out for this most famous of Dickensian antagonists following his barnstormer, 2017, RSC Twelfth Night: 

‘His Malvolio struts with sepulchral gravitas. Scrooge-withered of gait and parchment skinned, there are suggestions of Gormenghast’s Mr Fley. Vulture-like,’

Writer, David Edgar’s generous flexibility in fiction teasing fact-driving fiction forms the ingenious conceit of director, Rachel Kavanagh’s, voluptuous, bells and penny-whistles, holly, mistletoe and plum-brandy pudding production of A Christmas Carol. 

John Forster, a lifetime dedicated friend and editor of Dickens is imagined as his mentor, muse and sometime amanuensis. Dickens, outraged by the latest Factory Inspection horrors is determined to publish a Pamphlet. Forster encourages him to consider channelling his fury, and undoubted literary genius, into a tightly constructed novella. Possibly woven within the philanthropic ethos of Christmas? Dickens is charged with a mission. 

Whereby he not only creates a literary cornucopia of archetypal characters but simultaneously insinuates a less than subtle, but to the new phenomenon of Victorian middle classes, a revelatory window into their own privileged souls. Meanwhile, virtually and actually, he also invents the vernacular of contemporary Christmas.

The production designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, pulls out all the stops, steeps them in nitromethane, lights a very short fuse and bathes in the glory. From sepulchral Scrooge to Damascene, redemptive, avuncular dancing, debt-relief, bold-turkey donating dude, Edmundson revels in the role. Ghosts are busting to drag him down but his snotty miserabilism and sheer braggadocio seem too resilient to let go of the dark side.

Putting aside any Wildean cynicism regarding the will-he-won’t-he demise of Tiny Tim, Emma Pallant’s Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas-Dinner tirade against her husband’s forced toast of goodwill to Scrooge, is a marvel to be enjoyed. The cutlery rattling, (off-script plate drop/smashing?) saucepan shaking, make-shift manifesto, resonates with an unsettling, contemporaneous relevance towards ‘The feckless and the idle/waste not, want not,’ perceived charity scroungers. Emphasised for bad measure at one of nephew, Fred’s Christmas soirées where a young, drunken air-head berates the sheer begging nerve of them all.

The story unfolds as an evolving, experimental narrative construct where not only is Dickens, an earnestly energetic Gavin Fowler, incrementally prompted by Forster (Beruce Khan) to explore alternative themes and plot device and development, they are both physically immersed in them. This is brought to an autobiographical cathartic exposition where Dickens reveals his childhood shame following his father’s incarceration for unpaid debts and his subsequently having to work in a blacking factory for ten shillings a week. Edgar’s suggestive conceit here is to draw parallels with Dickens’ lasting obsession with writing and international tour readings as a means to ever avoid his father’s situation and that of Scrooge’s avarice. Perhaps a tenuous interpretation but it lends depth and ingenious textures.

Set pieces are the show’s extravagant indulgence – the bar set as high as the holly-decked roof-beam chandeliers. Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig is near fit to burst with corpuscular, ruddy-cheeked Yuletide bonhomie. There is a cheeky nod to The Snowman’s aerial sequence where the voluptuous, highly fruited and evergreen bedecked Ghost of Christmas Present, Sunetra Sarker, takes Scrooge on a magic carpet ride: he has a continuous bee in his balding bonnet about this precious Persian carpet. This journey of revelation might come as near to Edgar’s political statement as any – being of insidious reality then, as of now.

All of which leads to Edmundson’s masterclass muse-infused Scrooge. So often, in his earlier careers, his characters have been a celebration of anarchic iconoclasm and he draws on these with startling energy. He challenges the earlier visiting spectres with interrogative arrogance and only when Forster gives the now fully confident Dickens free rein, do we explore Scrooge’s transformative path to humane recognition, responsibility and reconciled redemption, both writer and character embracing their fitting epiphanies. The grown-ups meanwhile, might need to keep an eye out for this young, indeed very young, ensemble cast, with a formidably promising Gracie Coates as Tiny Tim. A wassail of wonderful talent one and all.

Runs until: 1 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

The Best Live Ade ever.

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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