'A Christmas Carol': Theater Review

A Christmas Carol_Melissa Allan_Rhys Ifans_Production Still - Publicity - H 2017
Manuel Harlan
A festive thumbs-up.

Rhys Ifans plays Scrooge in Jack Thorne's new stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens seasonal classic, directed by Tony winner Matthew Warchus.

The Old Vic's artistic director Matthew Warchus no doubt planned his production of A Christmas Carol long before the theater got caught up in the scandal surrounding Kevin Spacey, Warchus' predecessor in the job. Nonetheless, the timing of Dickens' festive morality tale could not be more fortuitous — as both a shot of good cheer and a reminder of how a sense of community can defeat any amount of humbug.

And community is the most striking theme of this slightly stuttering, but also intelligent and emotionally pleasing adaptation, billed as a "new version" by Jack Thorne (an Olivier Award winner this year for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), directed by Warchus and starring Rhys Ifans as the miser stirred toward a new leaf by visiting spirits. It's there in the utilization of an often musical ensemble and an audience-participating festive finale; and in the emphasis on Scrooge's isolation and loneliness. Even The Vic itself plays its part: The space has rarely seemed more beautiful or communal.

Designer Rob Howell sets the scene with a fetching economy — wrapping the audience around a cruciform stage, above which hangs a canopy of lanterns. Props are few: doorframes rising from the stage as needed, cash boxes that also form Scrooge's office chair, and which at one point Ifans slots into the floor like nails into a coffin. As the audience enters, Victorian-clad folk offer them mince pies, while musicians in frock coats and top hats play on stage.

Many of the ensemble have dual roles, and together they act as a chorus, sometimes singing carols, and beginning the proceedings by voicing in unison Dickens' opening exposition. Then Ifans enters, a tall, spindly, straggly haired wreck of a man, in a coat whose red velvet is hanging on for dear life. Despite his visage, Scrooge's voice is rich, and patrician, as he spits spleen at the charity collectors: "I need those singing creatures kept away from my door."

Given this atmospheric groundwork, the play proper gets off to a weak start, as Thorne rushes through Scrooge's office-based refutation of the season, omits his house altogether and skimps on his meeting with Marley. The miserliness cheats the piece of spectral scene-setting and the full misanthropy of Scrooge's starting position; there's genuinely more "bah humbug" in Blackadder's Christmas Carol. It's one of two structural errors, the other being an unnecessary intermission, which disrupts the plot's natural momentum from one spirit to another and threatens to cauterize the dramatic flow after the death of Tiny Tim (a touching Toby Eden)

But the first half does sees Thorne, whose adaptation of Woyzeck with John Boyega played at The Old Vic earlier this year, move his interpretation through the gears. The increased significance of Scrooge's penurious father suggests a strong motivation for later avarice (and coincidentally chimes with a central theme in the new film The Man Who Invented Christmas). And the characterization of the ghosts of Christmas past and present — the first an elderly woman, the second middle-aged, each pushing empty prams — speaks to the importance of children to the story and the season.

Scrooge himself is presented as a man driven by a snarling logic, constantly referring to his role as money lender as an honorable profession. Ifans dutifully subverts his innate charisma in these initial stages, shrinking into the small-mindedness of his character; though he also undercuts the gruffness with moments of ironic humor, while introducing cracks in the certitude.

It's really after the intermission that Thorne's interventions start to reap dividends. The decision to make Scrooge's late, beloved sister, Little Fan (Melissa Allan), the final spirit is a masterstroke, giving a human face to the moment when misdeeds, missed opportunities and possible redemption all come sharply into focus. And the appearances over his grave of Bob Cratchit (John Dagleish), Scrooge's nephew George (Jamie Cameron) and lost love Belle (Erin Doherty) add to the powerful reimagining of the novel's fourth stave and a palpable emotional grounding for the enlightened miser's joyous dance through London — a moment that Ifans, metaphorical shackles removed, embraces with his more familiar exuberance.

Thorne and Warchus have earned the right to go out with a crowd-pleasing festive bang, complete with music, dance, the constituents of Christmas dinner arriving through and over the audience and a great deal of snow. Though the second drenching seemed a little uncalled for, it would take a brave soul to say "bah humbug,"

Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Melissa Allan, Jamie Cameron, John Dagleish, Erin Doherty, Oliver Evans, Tim van Eyken, Alex Gaumond, Siena Kelly, Eugene McCoy, Myra McFadyen, Maria Omakinwa, Alastair Parker, Golda Rosheuvel, Toby Eden
Playwright: Jack Thorne, adapted from Charles Dickens
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Music: Christopher Nightingale
Musical director: Will Stuart
Presented by The Old Vic