One of the defining aspects of Christmas that delights and frustrates, depending on your inclination, is its inexorability; it comes around again and again, like the white horse on a carousal. Maybe this will also be the case with the Old Vic production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which proved a great success last year and is back to spread its Yuletide cheer around the Comedy Theatre once more.
The central change – in fact, the only significant change – is the casting of the villain who becomes a hero. Last year it was David Wenham playing Ebenezer Scrooge; this year it’s Welsh character actor and Game of Thrones alumnus Owen Teale.
In some ways, Teale (who only last year played Scrooge in London) slots effortlessly into the role, the cogs around him clicking pleasingly into place. He’s a natural fit, with an irascible visage and weary gait. He’s the right age and temperament. It’s almost too easy.
But Teale’s performance, as solid and affecting as it is, pales when compared with Wenham’s – who brought an unexpected emotional intensity and mercurial physicality to the role – which in turn shifts the focus of the show onto the ensemble. With Teale playing a more quintessential Scrooge, one we recognise and expect, the production as a whole better achieves its aim, which is to charm and delight. I miss Wenham’s swirling morbidity and keening tragic mien, but Teale’s moody old Grinch works perfectly well.
Adapted by Jack Thorne (who co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and directed by Matthew Warchus (whose Groundhog Day is coming to Melbourne next year), A Christmas Carol is a sterling example of commercial English theatre, slick and seamless. That can sometimes feel a little soulless – but far from overwhelming the actors, or worse making them seem redundant, the set and costume design (Rob Howell) here gives them plenty of space for play.
On a simple wooden-slatted set, overhung with winking lanterns (Hugh Vanstone’s glorious lighting is a production highlight) that contrast beautifully with the deep blacks of the backgrounds, Ebenezer Scrooge establishes himself as a miserable, miserly blight on mid-nineteenth century London society. He’s cruel to his employee Bob Cratchit (Bernard Curry), dismissive of his nephew Fred (a bright, beaming Andrew Coshan) and hilariously ill-disposed to the carollers at the door. His philosophy is one of grim capitalist self-interest: the poor are merely a “surplus population” rather than people in need, and Christmas is a time to call in debt. He’s clearly in for a reckoning.
When his former business partner Jacob Marley (Anthony Harkin) appears from beyond the grave to warn him about the imminent visitation of three spirits, Scrooge is dismissive. What could they teach him, whose life choices have fortified him from compassion and empathy? Quite a lot, it turns out. The first ghost, that of Christmas Past (Debra Lawrance), takes him back to his childhood, which gives Thorne an excuse – and a compelling narrative opportunity – to deepen the character’s psychology and motivation.
We meet Fezziwig the funeral director (Grant Piro) and his daughter Belle (Sarah Morrison), as well as Scrooge’s own father (Harkin, again) and sister Fan (an excellent Aisha Aidara). These scenes reveal the adaptation’s moral perspective, its belief in the central character as a damaged soul rather than a rotten one. Dickens sees Scrooge as inherently mean and avaricious, but Thorne prefers to see a man whose principles blind him to what really matters.
The rest of the story falls out as we’d expect, as Scrooge is shown the error of his ways and eventually makes amends. One of the aspects of A Christmas Carol that makes it so irresistible is the way it leans into hope, when it could so easily tilt into tragedy. Imagine a Scrooge who repents only to find people rejecting him anyway: it would be unbearable, like something out of Hardy or Wharton, perhaps. Dickens is the ultimate sentimentalist, and who doesn’t want that at Christmas time?
Essentially, Scrooge is a secular St Paul whose conversion on the road to Damascus takes place entirely in his own bedroom. Warchus and Thorne try very hard to bleach the tale of any hint of religiosity – although Christ gets a couple of mentions very late in the piece via the hymns sung by the capable cast – but it’s curious how little Teale makes of this epiphany. His Scrooge has a profound realisation, but not the transfiguration Dickens was hinting at and that Wenham nailed. There is a deeper spiritual point to be made from A Christmas Carol, even if nobody involved here wants to make it. Never mind; maybe next year.
'A Christmas Carol' is showing at the Comedy Theatre until January 7, 2024. For more information and to book your tickets, head to the website.