Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol, a brave new take on an all-time Christmas classic


It’s a brave director who rewrites a successful classic. Matthew Warchus has done just this in The Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol.

He clearly felt he could improve on Charles Dickens’ original text, or at least twist it to ram home some of the political points he wishes to make.

He does sugar the pill with a lot of theatre tricks, some of which are impressive. But the audience is left confused, and with a bad taste in the mouth.

A Christmas Carol was first published a week before Christmas 1843, and had sold out of copies by Christmas Eve.

It tells the story of an elderly miser Scrooge who confronts three spirits in his nightshirt on Christmas Eve, and changes his ways.

As such, it has always combined two themes. The terrible poverty of early Victorian London, which inspires Scrooge’s conversion, and the joyous spirit of the traditional Christmas festival itself.

The many interpretations on stage and screen have succeeded in pulling off the right balance between these two.

Director Matthew Warchus clearly wants to put more emphasis on the former theme, and in this ‘woke’ production bends the text accordingly.

Scrooge himself is played enthusiastically by clear-voweled RSC star Paterson Joseph.

Main pic: Paterson Joseph as Scrooge and, above, Joseph with Rebecca Trehearn as Belle Pictures: Manuel Harlan

He is young for Scrooge, and plays the role with passion and energy, a somewhat unnerving take.

He is also not in the traditional nightshirt, but fully dressed, and with a colourful housecoat that doesn’t seem quite in character.

It also means poor Paterson rushes about the stage sweating profusely to the horror of the front row. I’m sure they long for him to put on his nightshirt.

The auditorium for this production is in the round, with a long catwalk extending across the theatre.

This is used to full effect early on when Scrooge is visited by his former partner Jacob Marley (an equally energetic young Andrew Langtree) complete with a wonderful train of chains and strong boxes that stretch along the catwalk.

Andrew also plays a new character introduced for this production, Scrooge’s wicked father, who confusingly seems much younger than Scrooge.

The first spirit, the ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’ (Myra McFadden), takes Scrooge back to his upbringing. We see his suffering with the, newly introduced, psychotic
father, meet his lovely sister Fan (bizarrely Scottish – Melissa Allan) and see his apprenticeship under ‘Fezziwig’ (James Staddon).

Fezziwig, so called in the original because he wore a worse-for-wear Georgian wig, of course does no such thing in this production, and for some strange reason is rewritten as an undertaker. Why?

We also meet Fezziwig’s daughter Belle (Rebecca Trehearn).

The ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ (Gloria Onitiri) is up next. She shows Scrooge the warm Christmas his nephew Fred is celebrating (well played by Fred Haig).

She also shows him the horrors of his clerk’s impoverished Christmas, as we briefly meet Bob Cratchit (Steven Miller) and Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim is played by a series of different children, boys and girls, some with disabilities.

‘The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’ is replaced in this production by Scrooge’s Scottish sister making a comeback.

Finally the audience gets to celebrate Scrooge’s conversion, and all the tricks the Old Vic has to offer.

We don’t get Scrooge flinging open his window and sending a young boy off to buy a turkey.

But we do get the audience being ‘snowed on’ – soap foam which is very effective but don’t wear your Sunday best.

And a bizarre moment when the lights go up and hundreds of plastic vegetables are thrown down two enormous shoots from the Gods. Brussels sprouts arrive by parachute.

A lot of energy. But confused and confusing, and definitely not a traditional Christmas.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Old Vic until January 18

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