David Edgar’s new adaptation of Dickens’ classic 1843 novella returns to the RSC for the second year running with a new cast, after achieving critical and commercial success in 2017. Adapted for stage and screen more than 250 times since the 1950s alone, A Christmas Carol is arguably the most famous Christmas story ever written. However, in this version, Edgar succeeds in drawing out the social consciousness and background of the story alongside its well-known, larger-than-life characters and plot to create a well-balanced and powerful production that satisfies our expectations, while also drawing our attention to elements of the quintessential Christmas tale that we may not have considered before.
Even as Dickens originally wrote it, A Christmas Carol is a story of two nations, of haves and have nots. Every example of Scrooge’s (Aden Gillett) wealth is juxtaposed with the deprivation of the Cratchits. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design captures this throughout the production; in the form of a towering workhouse looming upstage, a sobering backdrop for Scrooge’s curtained four-poster bed, or in the striking identification of the social classes by their front doors, one swiftly replaced with another in generally seamless set-changes. Such set-changes serve to illustrate a second political point; despite representing the antithesis of Christmas cheer for much of the play, Edgar’s adaptation, as Dickens’ original, is quite clear on the reasons for Scrooge’s development into the miserly “Bah, humbug!” figure that we see. The Ghost of Christmas Past (played with stature and aplomb by Claire Carrie) walks us through his troubled past, with the death of his mother in childbirth, and his sweetheart’s (Jessica Murrain) decision to leave him, ultimately emphasising the nature of his character as a manifestation of the indifference and selfishness that Dickens perceived developing when human relations become defined by the cash nexus.
However much, if not all of this, can be inferred from the original text. Where Edgar’s hand is most evident is in the on-stage presence of Dickens himself (a dynamic Joseph Timms) with fellow writer and editor John Forster (Beruce Khan). The production begins amusingly with Khan’s Forster reproaching Dickens for his desire to write a Christmas political tract intended to shed light on the exploitation of child labour in Victorian London. Forster implores Dickens to write a story instead. He finally concedes, but only because he has decided that a story that will “echo down the ages”, will make a more powerful medium for his social message. As such, Edgar stresses Dickens’ identity as a writer who derived his motivation first and foremost from the social injustice he witnessed around him.
This emphasis on the maltreatment and neglect of children brings a very real edge to the presentation of Tiny Tim. As an audience we recognise, perhaps with a new focus, the wider social implications of the actions of men like Scrooge, and the exploitative system they represent, on millions of young children like Tim. It is not a stretch to consider the characters in this production of A Christmas Carol as either allegorical or ‘everyman’ figures. In fact, Edgar leads us towards this conclusion by framing Dickens and Forster alongside the characters within the story itself, never interacting with them, but watching intently, only occasionally re-positioning or supplying them with lines, as though they spectators to the unfolding story almost as much as we are, constantly reminding us of the society which Dickens sought at least to render, if not reform.
In conjunction with Edgar’s accomplished literary adaptation, there are excellent individual performances wherever you look. Gillett stands out as a terrifyingly believable Scrooge, whose voice, like a dragon bellowing through a cask of ale, causes more than a nervous stir among the audience; as does Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, whose paternal tenderness and desperate efforts to maintain his family’s unity, gives way after Scrooge’s reformation to a wickedly sharp sense of comic timing. Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction throughout the piece is compelling and pacy. No scene drags and there are some wonderful set pieces, particularly the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner, where every member of cast involved shines. There are several glorious ensemble dance numbers, accompanied by live musicians, bright and indulgent in only the very best ways.
Despite openly acknowledging the bleakness of the society which A Christmas Carol takes as its setting, at no point does this production feel melodramatic or gloomy for gloom’s own sake. Rather, Edgar, Kavanaugh and the creative team capture just the right tone, realising an ultimately life-affirming play which emboldens many of humanity’s noblest traits, including the capacity for joy and optimism against all odds and the potential for even the biggest Scrooge to reform at Christmas-time.
A Christmas Carol is playing The Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 20 January 2019. For more information and tickets, click here.