ITS BACK…THIIS TIME GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS THE PURRING THEATRE CHRISTMASCAT
A Christmas Carol – with lots of carols? Whoda thunk it? The idea is almost stupefying in its simplicity, but my goodness it works wonderfully, adding weight and meaning and, yes, proper context to Charles Dickens’ oft told story of personal redemption.
This is a production that uses timeless songs like The Coventry Carol, O Holy Night and See, amid the Winter’s Snow to unlock so much of the mystery and meaning of Dickens’ story, each one fitting the action like a snug winter glove. What a jukebox director Matthew Warchus has at his disposal, and in these secular times it’s a pleasant surprise to have the Nativity celebrated in this way.
Because what writer Jack Thorne’s version of this beloved 1843 novella reminds us above all is that Dickens’ story is not about one magical night of transformation, but for everyone to remember the Christmas message of goodwill and generosity to the world at large; or as Scrooge himself puts it at the conclusion of his journey, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year”. And that is an unmistakeably Christian instruction.
This freshened-up production, returning to the Old Vic after its premiere in 2017, is first rate.
Rob Howell’s design creates a cross-shaped stage that threads its way through the stalls. Four doors rise up to admit the ghosts, creating portals that act imaginatively in ways that are inevitably both literal and figurative.
On a simple set Scrooge sits alone while a crew of wassailers sing around him; of course he rejects their overtures, but, like the three Christmas ghosts (all played by women), they keep returning, a crescendo of kindness he can’t ultimately resist.
Stepping into the lead role, and following Rhys Ifans and Stephen Tompkinson in previous years, is Paterson Joseph, familiar to fans of cult comedy Peep Show as the idiotically vain Alan Johnson, and here giving one of the performances of his life. His humanity simply erupts onto the stage, especially in those moments when he faces up to his treatment of Rebecca Trehearn’s Belle, the woman he once loved.
Thorne’s script is also notable for the way it interrogates the question of what made Scrooge who he is and finds part of the answer in is appalling treatment at the hands of his drunken father. He’s not excused, of course, but understanding of that, and Joseph’s skilled portrayal of a man whose sheer humanity allows for nuggets of goodness, means we are consistently pointed us towards the possibility of redemption.
And when it comes it feels simultaneously inevitable and gloriously surprising. The stage becomes a cornucopia of Christmas treats and fruits and the final moments of lamplit carolling, bell ringing and snowfall at the close will make your heart leap. I urge you to go and see this truly fabulous show.
Until January 18. Box Office: 0344 871 7628.