From the Muppets to the RSC, everyone has done ‘A Christmas Carol’, the tale about a miserly old man who becomes charitable and warm-hearted following nighttime visitations from a trio of spirits at Christmas. But Wilton’s – possibly the most atmospheric theatre in the city and the perfect setting for any festive theatre imo – might have managed to find an original take.
It’s Scrooge versus the patriarchy in Piers Torday’s clever, gender-flipped adaptation of Charles Dickens’s famous festive tale, directed by Stephanie Street. Ebenezer is dead and Fan (Sally Dexter), his younger sister and Jacob Marley’s widow, is the one shrouded in black, barking ‘bah, humbug’ at anyone who’ll listen. The main difference, though, is that, as a woman in Victorian England, she has a lot more to be miserly about than Ebenezer ever did.
Sure, she’s closed-off and mean-spirited. But she’s also been restricted, controlled and belittled by all the men in her life. She finally has the autonomy to live her life the way she chooses now that her husband is dead. Then, the man who legally reigned over her in life returns one Christmas Eve, intent on teaching her another lesson from beyond the grave.
The evening starts with an audience singalong fitting for the setting – Wilton’s was a nineteenth-century music hall, after all – but, although the intention is to spread love and goodwill, the vibe of this ‘Christmas Carol’ is never purely jolly again.
There are lols. The story is told by Meagre, Charles Dickens’s snooty cat. A turkey ends up joining Scrooge for Christmas lunch when she decides to turn vegan. I could watch the Ghost of Christmas Present – an Ent-like creature who lives ‘in the moment, man’ – for hours. He meditates for an hour a day, has a taste for turmeric lattes and spouts therapist cliches: ‘Let’s unpack that.’ But you don’t get the neat, heartwarming conclusion you’re expecting (thanks to the countless adaptations you’ve probably seen before). Scrooge’s redemption comes in a different guise, via musings on familial labour, motherhood and a short trip to modern-day London that feels intensely anxiety-inducing if you’re a textbook conflicted, confused millennial like me.
Ignorance (Joseph Hardy) and Want (Chisara Agor), two impoverished children wandering the streets of London and listening to the tale, remain unaffected, despite Fan’s change of heart – a stark reminder of the many homeless people sleeping on twenty-first-century London’s streets. This adaptation could be accused of being a little heavy-handed with its message about the plight of women, but I’m never going to say it’s something we shouldn’t be shouting about. Plus, it’s Christmas – no one ever said panto season was subtle.