This review is from 2022. ‘A Christmas Carol’ returns for 2023 with Christopher Eccleston playing Scrooge.
Jack Thorne’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now such a regular annual fixture at the Old Vic that it stands a good chance of being added to one of those ‘You know it’s Christmas in London when…’ lists. Its appeal isn’t hard to understand. It starts with a costumed cast member offering you a mince pie and ends with carolling, handbell-ringing and Scrooge asking for charity donations via card-reader for London’s neediest. In the intervening two hours there are dances, live music, shouting, a turkey on a death slide, cascades of sprouts and the most seasonal and magical single moment you’ll see on the London stage this Christmas, plus a lead you’ll recognise off the telly. It’s a lot.
It is not perfect, though, and its imperfections are more apparent in this year’s outing (its sixth) starring Owen Teale as Scrooge. Last time I saw it, Stephen Tompkinson was doing the honours, lumbering about the stage and seeming genuinely at a loss as to why being a moneylender might not be that popular a vocation. His Scrooge’s eventual revelation that being nice is nicer than being nasty was all the more affecting for his initial inability to understand either concept. Teale’s performance is more finely nuanced, but if you’ve ever read any Dickens, you’ll know that nuance is maybe not his stand-out quality. His Scrooge occasionally feels more like a divorced alcoholic copper with anger issues and a lot on his mind, and the production adds relationship drama at the expense of more ghosts and/or whoopee. I don’t care that much about Scrooge’s old girlfriend, sorry. More gothic gloom and jelly!
The great bits are still very great: the in-the-round staging with a set of empty doorframes that bleakly stand like gallows or guillotines; the phantom Jacob Marley, with his Lady-Di-wedding-dress train of chains that twang him back to the abyss of the past; the wonderful sense of growing inclusiveness as the stage and the audience blur together at the end.
If ‘A Christmas Carol’ teaches us anything, it’s that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if you are seeing this awesome adaptation for the first time, you’ll definitely be properly bowled over by it. Its masque-like qualities hark back to a pre-Victorian idea of ritual and celebration, the cast (all excellent) are drilled like squaddies and you get a mince pie. Its warning about austerity and grasping want-mores has a real edge this year, as Scrooge hollers ‘I will NOT feel guilty!’ like a Partygate politician on ‘Question Time’. And its star remains undimmed; this is still the most glittering bauble on London’s Christmas stage.