'A Christmas Carol' review – this pertinent Dickens adaptation has the prettiest staging and loveliest music

Read our four-star review of A Christmas Carol, starring Christopher Eccleston, now in performances at the Old Vic to 6 January.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Taking up residence at the Old Vic every Christmas since 2017, Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol shows every sign of being a long-term fixture in one of London’s most beautiful and historic theatres, with the warmth and familiarity of greeting an old friend. With complimentary satsumas and mince pies, hand bells and two flurries of menthol-scented snow foam, any sense of resistance is futile.

Matthew Warchus’s production remains as picturesque as an engraving in the Illustrated London News, and Christopher Nightingale’s enchanting use of carols is its trump card (it’s terrible that there still hasn’t been a recording). Of course, Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, in which Scrooge sees poverty as a moral failing and has an ensuing change of heart, is always timely: if only those in power would have a similar epiphany.

Thorne presents Scrooge as the product of a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father who relied on his son for money. He’s possibly how Dickens himself could have turned out if he’d been of a different disposition.

Donning the ikat dressing gown this year, Christopher Eccleston gives a performance of considerable subtlety that’s considerably less bluff and blustering than many Scrooges. Instead, he’s withered and zombie-like, inclined towards silent, simmering resentment.

Rob Howell’s design features a peninsular-like walkway on which Jacob Marley makes his entry with his seemingly eternal train of chain. The three spirits are all female, dressed in crazy patchwork dresses and pushing prams. Rather than the usual Darth Vader type, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is Scrooge’s late sister Fan (Rose Shalloo), delivering a few home truths with a velvet glove.

The ever-haunting "Coventry Carol" is sung at Scrooge’s lowest ebb, and there’s a joyous rendition of "See Amid the Winter Snow" as Scrooge greets the world the morning after and assembles the best feast of all – the parachuting sprouts are truly irresistible.

It is of course a fable populated by stock characters, though there are times when some deeper digging would pay off. A plot strand that is particularly well handled is young Scrooge being motivated in his pursuit of riches by his belief that a middle-class life as the wife of a tradesman isn’t enough for his sweetheart Belle (Frances McNamee). There’s a touching speech from her about Scrooge being part of her story and how she’s happy with the choices she has made.

Representing Scrooge’s fresh start, Freddie Merritt (one of four young actors sharing the role) is an adorable Tiny Tim, and Rob Compton is an underwritten but endearing Bob Cratchit.

No stranger to activism himself, Eccleston drops Scrooge’s received pronunciation to use his authentic voice to encourage the audience to donate to City Harvest London, a charity that helps combat food poverty – if only that wasn’t necessary.

As escapism that’s also all-too-pertinent, with the prettiest staging and the loveliest music, this production really is the crème de la crème of traditional Christmas Carols.

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic through 6 January. Book A Christmas Carol tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: A Christmas Carol (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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