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A Christmas Carols
Photo by Bryan Mayes/various

Why the hell are there so many productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in London?

From Dolly Parton’s musical version to a Sherlock Holmes-themed take, there are 11 ‘Christmas Carols’ in London this year. What the Dickens is going on?

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’, a story so vastly, monumentally, monolithically popular that it’s difficult to truly encapsulate how popular it actually is. Saying it’s successful as a work of fiction is like saying the sky is successful at covering the earth, or water is successful at being a drink. But let’s try. 

Plot-wise, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is probably the single best-known work of literature written in the English language. It’s unquestionably the most famous story about London ever written. It’s done far more to shape our idea of Christmas than the Bible. It has single-handedly torpedoed Ebeneezer as a viable boy’s name in the West. And it’s been adapted. Adapted a lot.

Within three months of publication, there had been eight stage adaptations of “A Christmas Carol”, and several prose piracies as well,’ says David Edgar, playwright and Dickens expert, whose own 2017 version for the RSC returns to Stratford-upon-Avon this Christmas, with Adrian Edmondson playing miser protagonist Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose life and worldview are changed for ever after being visited by a series of ghosts.

Copyright laws of the day were basically non-existent, something that infuriated Dickens, who lost out on squillions in royalties and was unable stop the endless flow of terrible knockoff versions. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Back then, books were pricy, lots of people couldn’t read and plays were cheap. ‘“Christmas Carol” was an expensive book, costing five shillings,’ says Edgar ‘and so – as theatre tickets were as little as threepence – dramatisation was a way of working-class people gaining access to the novel.’

However, 179 years on and theatre tickets cost a lot more than books. And yet this Christmas there will be 11 stage versions of Dickens’ story running in London. ELEVEN. Two of them are musicals, and two of them are parodies. One is dinner theatre. Another involves a drunk actor. But they’re all still fundamentally ‘A Christmas Carol’.

‘It’s like a great big Christmas gift’

Even during the Covid-blighted Christmas of 2020, there were still three versions on in London, including the Bridge Theatre’s take, devised by director Nicholas Hytner and the play’s three-strong Simon Russell-Beale-led cast. ‘We were determined to have something running, whatever the rules and regs allowed,’ recalls Hytner. ‘It became clear that we could use three actors max, we had Simon Russell Beale [who’d been signed on to star in the previously intended Christmas show], so I read some stuff, narrowed it down to Dickens, tinkered with “The Chimes” and finally admitted that “Christmas Carol’ is always done for all the right reasons – it’s a phenomenal story.’

It’s back this Christmas at the Bridge: director and cast resolved to restage it after its original run was truncated by the pandemic. And it’s not the only returnee.

The big beast of the London ‘Christmas Carol’ scene is undoubtedly Jack Thorne’s ebullient take, which has run at the Old Vic every Christmas since 2017 – it didn’t even pause for the pandemic but instead ran in the empty theatre, broadcast live to audiences watching online.

‘Every year I'm amazed and very grateful it comes back,’ says Thorne. ‘It’s a like a great big Christmas gift.’

Interestingly, Thorne doesn’t recall the story being done as much as it is now back when he was writing it. 

‘When I got approached by Matthew [Warchus, Old Vic artistic director] to write “A Christmas Carol” it wasn't as popular as it is now,’ he says. ‘There were versions around but it wasn't quite as all-prevailing. If, for instance, I had known that David Edgar was doing an RSC version I’d have been too frightened to pick up a pen. David Edgar adapts Dickens like no-one else. Ignorance wasn’t exactly bliss, but it did mean the fear came after I’d done my first draft.’

As I recall, he’s right: a few years ago it was more like four or five productions every year, and pre-Old Vic they tended to be smaller, more trad affairs – like Antic Disposition’s twinkly take at Middle Temple Hall, which has been jobbing on quietly for a decade now. It feels like the repeated blockbuster success of Thorne’s version – which typically features a famous TV/stage face as Scrooge – has actually encouraged other theatres to give it a shot. 

Acclaimed playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has written a new one for the Rose Theatre Kingston, and reckons the more the merrier: ‘The way I look at it is that not everyone can make it into central London to see a Christmas show and therefore isn’t it wonderful that a theatre with a large community around it will be offering this super-festive story?’ she says. ‘I adore Christmas shows and being given the chance to do my take on this one is a real gift. I can’t wait to see other people’s versions too.’ 

Her ‘Carol’ features a female Scrooge, whose misanthropy is encouraged by the lack of opportunity for women who weren’t the queen in Victorian society. ‘She has likely faced far more barriers than a male Scrooge would have had to and this has impacted our version of her.’

This is important: despite all the stuff you have to include (Scrooge, ghosts, redemption, Christmas) it’s a surprisingly malleable tale. Certainly, it’s safe to say that Dolly Parton wasn’t desperately worried about convention or the local competition when she set out to write ‘A Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’, a musical version set in 1930s Tennessee, that will pitch up at the Southbank Centre this Christmas.

I think “A Christmas Carol” has made a worldwide impact,’ says US playwright David H Bell, who adapted and wrote the script (Dolly wrote the original songs) ‘Dickens invented a kind of Christmas that is still as revered in the US as it is in England: Christmas cards, the Christmas tree, turkey, gift-giving and the month-long exposure to the Christmas carols that we all grew up with.’

It’s an expanded version of a mini-musical that Bell and Parton wrote years ago for her themepark, Dollywood. The director of entertainment at the park loved it ‘and asked Dolly and me to expand on the material – setting the story in the Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression’, says Bell. ‘A time and a place ravaged by great poverty, industrialised by the companies of “King Coal”, while the local miners and their families barely scratched out a living. It was a time and place that seemed to have qualities analogous to the Victorian London that Dickens created in his writing.’

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story, Alexandra Palace, 2022
Photo by Manuel HarlanMark Gatiss in ‘A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story’
‘At its heart is the idea we can change who we are’

So it’s a flexible story. But why is it a good story? It’s not hard to find a theory.

‘It’s an eternally timeless tale in both a positive and negative way,’ says Mark Gatiss, whose dark take ran at Alexandra Palace last Christmas and hits cinemas in recorded form this year. ‘The positives are that it is full of light and joy and celebration, whilst telling an incredibly powerful story of redemption which everyone can relate to. And in a more negative way, Scrooge is always with us in one form or another, and that’s what makes it eternally relevant.’

‘My hunch?’ says Hytner. ‘It always works because at its heart is the idea that we can change who we are, even the parts we hate most about ourselves. It’s a myth, but it exists within a story which is up there with the very best of Dickens and has all the warmth and the rage at injustice that animates his great novels.’

‘The “Carolhas been so popular,’ says Edgar ‘because – like Shakespeare’s plays – it has spoken to different times in different ways. In the 1840s, the novel reinvented Christmas for an increasingly urbanised Britain – reminding readers of rural Christmas traditions and reminting them for cities. By the 1870s, the story had taken on a more religious colouring – the Cratchits as a contemporary Holy Family. By the turn of the century, the book had become a children’s story, with Scrooge as a malign old man turning into an affectionate grandfather.’

‘Two reasons,’ says Thorne. ‘One: it’s magnificent writing, and two: it has a gloriously simple structure. Three ghosts and a resolution. You can’t ask for better than that.’

Are there too many productions? Jon Bradfield’s ribald four-hander adult take, ‘Ghosted’, at The Other Palace has the subtitle ‘Another F***ing Christmas Carol’. But then he is literally staging another f***ing ‘Christmas Carol’. ‘We’re having our cake and eating it,’ he says, ‘sharing a joke about the proliferation of “Christmas Carols” while shamelessly doing our own – though it definitely is “our own”, which I hope is implied! To be honest, I think it’s not really more overdone than any of the other stories theatres do at Christmas’.

Here’s the bottom line: London is bloody massive and it can handle 11 different adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at once. So that, in essence, is why it’s happening. It’s not the same as the Victorians frantically trying to gain access to the story. If there were no productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a given year, I don’t think it would be as much of a blow as, say, there being no pantomimes. But ‘A Christmas Carol’ is ‘A Christmas Carol’: an overwhelming, indestructible cultural phenomenon. If it was possible to get tired of it, we’d have got tired of it a century ago. But it’s part of our identity, and writers love to adapt it. From Dolly Parton’s singalong Americana to David Edgar’s stern interrogation of the pernicious effects of Victorian child labour laws, to Bradfield’s jokes ‘about fisting a ghost’, it’s basically inexhaustible. God bless ’em, every one!

Jack Thorne’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the Old Vic, Nov 12-Jan 7.

Dolly Parton’s ‘Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’ is at the Southbank Centre, Dec 8-Jan 8.

Nicholas Hytner’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the Bridge Theatre, Dec 6-31.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the Rose Theatre Kingston, Dec 2-Jan 2.

Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper’s ‘Ghosted: Another F***ing Christmas Carol’ is at The Other Palace, Dec 1-24.

Mr Swallow’s ‘A Christmas Carol-ish’ is at Soho Theatre, Dec 7-23.

Musical version ‘Scroogelicious’ runs at the Theatre Peckham, Dec 1-23.

Antic Disposition’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ runs at Middle Temple Hall, Dec 20-29.

New York-originating Sherlock Holmes-themed take ‘A Sherlock Carol’ runs at Marylebone Theatre Nov 18-Jan 7.

Immersive dinner theatre take ‘The Great Christmas Feast’ is at The Lost Estate, Nov 15-Jan 15.

Sh!t-Faced Showtime’s improv musical with one of the cast drunk (seriously) ‘A Pissedmas Carol’ is at Leicester Square Theatre Dec 15-Jan 7.

You might also like: London’s best pantomimes for 2022.

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