There are currently (at least) four stage versions of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ being performed in London (not including screenings of the superlative Muppet one). The two biggest are the now-landmark production at the Old Vic, this year featuring Stephen Mangan. And then there’s this adaptation by Mark Gatiss (you know, ‘Sherlock’ etc), which premiered at Nottingham Playhouse, before heading south. And it’s good. Alexandra Palace’s ruin-lust theatre is the perfect raddled backdrop – its faded Victorian glories and pockmarked plaster chime atmospherically with the set of perilously towering wooden filing cabinets, a kind of Monument Valley to Ebenezer Scrooge’s dry record-keeping.
Paraphrasing the book’s original name (‘A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas’), Gatiss sets out his stall explicitly: this is a production that harps on the ghostly nature of the story as much as the ‘God bless us, every one’ crimbo cheer. There are genuine chills as Marley’s ghost (Gatiss himself) materialises in the corner of Scrooge’s bedchamber, before the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come do their thang. ‘His Dark Materials’-style ghouls flit among the audience, and the Spirit of CYTC is a really horrifying shrouded figure, grimly pointing Scrooge to his own corpse, burial and gravestone.
Nicholas Farrell is a robustly believable Scrooge. He’s grumpy and grasping, then tearful and self-pitying, and eventually jolly and benevolent. His performance is straight down the line. There’s no deviation from the Scrooge of popular culture and memory: he even wears a nightcap. And maybe that’s where this production falls just short of being truly great. You sense that the huge legacy of ‘A Christmas Carol’ drags upon Gatiss, like the chains and cash boxes that swaddle Marley. Its fealty to the book is admirable, but maybe a prune would have made it more sprightly, especially in the second half. And the Ally Pally stage is very… stagey (one reason it fell out of use as a theatre originally). But these are nitpicks, really, from someone who’s probably read and seen too much Dickens in his life. There’s a wealth of ideas here, from the piles of filing cabinets becoming the skyscrapers of a smog-choked megalopolis, to some brilliantly choreographed dance set-pieces, an obligatory puppet, and projections of roiling seas and gothic mansions. There’s even actual carols at the end.
You can’t imagine Christmas without ‘A Christmas Carol’, it defines a lot of the ideas we have about the season. Its jollity, its sense of gloom, its highlighting what’s wrong with families. It’s a supernatural story for a reason: we all have ghosts of Christmases past and future, especially right now. But its literary density needs breaking into. This production – full of great performances, wit and visual invention – is a fine introduction to the story, and it’s an atmospheric, Christmassy night out in the theatre. It just needs a couple less potatoes on its plate.