Stephen Tompkinson takes over the role of Scrooge as the Old Vic’s joyous OTT Dickens take returns
I didn’t see Rhys Ifans in Matthew Warchus’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ last year and I’m glad. He’s always a bit self-consciously ‘Rhys Ifans’, and you absolutely definitely must not doubt the sincerity of this Scrooge if this big, open-hearted test of theatrical nerve is going to come off. If you reckon Dickens paints in broad emotional strokes, hold on to your (top) hat: Jack Thorne’s version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ makes ‘EastEnders’ look like Ibsen.
Stephen Tompkinson’s Scrooge starts off physically and emotionally cumbersome. He’s a kind of lumbering Anti-Santa: an un-jolly old man who goes round depriving people of stuff. It’s an interesting take on the part: as the ghosts show him the errors of his grasping, wasted life, he’s all Northern bluster and defensiveness. Around him, there’s carol-singing, there’s clog-dancing, there’s handbell-ringing (and plenty of hand-wringing). It’s like the blinking Olympic Opening Ceremony or something. There are also several stunning pieces of visual theatre: Marley’s ghost dragging a huge, Lady Di-wedding dress train of clanking chains; Scrooge alone beside a coffin on a wheeled carriage containing his future corpse.
It’s sort of impossible not to read it all as a Brexit parable: Scrooge is cut off from the whirl of life around him by greed and fear and regret, pursuing his path with blinkered self-delusion. ‘No exceptions!’ he cries when called to account for beggaring the first man to show him kindness. Rob Howell’s minimal set opens up the Old Vic, doing away with the hierarchy of stage and audience. It’s a literal crossroads. Symbolically: all the doors, all Scrooge’s bolts and locks and protection, are illusory, mimed by the actors.
The cast are generally superb, but it’s Tompkinson’s gig. By the time the totally bananas finale gets going, he’s tripping around the stage like a debutante. The ending doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as suggest that any kind of wall-building is futile and only some kind of separatist numbskull would consider it.
Okay, this won’t be to everyone’s taste, and Warchus could have toned down the panto and upped the chilly spookiness without doing any real damage. But if the message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is ‘God bless us every one’ (movingly delivered the night I saw it by Leo Lake as Tiny Tim), then this is theatre in which inclusivity is centre-stage, and the perils of denying it are all around you. It’s magical, it’s a risk, but if you don’t like it, you might just die alone.