“Christmas time is a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of when men and women open their shut-up hearts freely, and think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote these words in A Christmas Carol. Disheartened by a recent visit to Manchester to see his sister Fanny and her disabled son Harry during The Hungry Forties, he was disgusted at the abject poverty, and realised how hard life must be for disabled children with fewer means than his nephew. He wanted to write something to do some good, and A Christmas Carol was the result. Published on 19 December, the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. It has not been out of print since.
Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Dickens’ famous novella is returning to The Old Vic this year, after a smash-hit run last year starring Rhys Ifans. This year, Stephen Tompkinson takes on Victorian England’s infamous old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. The story, which I’m sure almost everyone knows, sees Scrooge, an unscrupulous moneylender, visited by the ghost of his business partner, Marley (Michael Rouse). He warns him of a dreadful afterlife if he continues to live without care or love for others. Scrooge remains unperturbed, and so Marley sends him three spirits; the Ghost of Christmas Past (Myra McFadyen), Present (Nicola Hughes), and Future (Witney White). They each teach him a lesson, and help both him and us to understand how he became such a loveless, miserable soul.
Rob Howell’s set design uses lanterns and a cross-shaped stage surrounded by stalls to transform The Old Vic into a magical place, with mince pies and satsumas handed out before the show. The cast narrate the piece in perfect unison, and sing and play the hand bells beautifully, accompanied by a gorgeous orchestral score performing stirring Christmas carols including ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen’. All the fantastically funny parts of Dickens’ prose, like when he accuses Marley’s ghost of being an “undigested bit of beef”, are thankfully, kept in. Thorne’s adaptation is an ode to Dickens’ original work, and transfers all the tender, beautiful, important parts of the story to the stage.
Tompkinson is an ideal Scrooge – cold, nasty and cruel pre-ghost intervention. He is in full support of the Poor Law and Workhouses, stating those who are ill should die, to “decrease the surplus population.” His icy exterior begins to thaw when Hughes, the only ghost to match him in rigour and anger, shows him the death of his assistant’s son, disabled Tiny Tim (Luka Petrovic), that he unknowingly caused. After the visit from his last ghost, his deceased sister Little Fan (White), his demeanour completely changes. From his lost love Belle (Frances McNamee) to his alcoholic father (Rouse), he acknowledges how those he’s loved have shaped him, and vows to once again open his heart to Christmas. The second act is a wonderful, tear-jerking celebration of the holiday, filled with laughter and interactive gags.
There is nothing I can say that will do any justice to this show other than this: go and see it. If you love Christmas, if you love people, do yourself a favour and go and see this show. In a time when more than four million children are going hungry every day, and there being an estimated 250,000 homeless people in the UK, Dickens’ story is as important today as it was in 1843. The Old Vic collects donations for the incredible charity, The Felix Project, every night for the entirety of the run. More importantly, it instils in us an appreciation for everything we have. Completely joyous, A Christmas Carol promotes the kindness, generosity and open-heartedness that Christmas is all about, and that we so desperately need.
A Christmas Carol is playing at The Old Vic until January 19 2019. For more information and tickets, click here