'A Christmas Carol' review — a festive story that serves as an emotional awakening

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

There’s no more welcome theatrical perennial these days than Jack Thorne’s take on A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic, which I have now seen six times and will happily revisit for as long as that venue’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus, cares to put it on.

Warchus’s own production of Charles Dickens’s malleable 1843 novella has boasted a different Ebenezer Scrooge each time, all the while bringing to bear a matchless aural component that won’t ever grow stale.

I envy playgoers their first exposure to composer-arranger Christopher Nightingale’s soundscape, which contains enough original composition to have won Nightingale a Tony for his incidental music: a rare victory in this category for a non-musical. But it’s the absorption into the rending whole of numerous seasonal standards that sets this production apart, whether that be the beloved French carol “Il est né, le divin enfant”, or the most shimmering version imaginable of “In the Bleak Midwinter”.

The use of bells lends a joyous tang to proceedings, and musical director Katharine Woolley and her band — seen perched to one side of this large-scale jewel box of a venue — deserve the cheers with which they are met at the end.

Owen Teale, a Tony-winner a quarter-century ago for A Doll’s House who has gone on to TV renown, is the latest Scrooge, following where Rhys Ifans first led; Campbell Scott took the part on Broadway, and Andrew Lincoln persuasively stepped up to the plate for an online version during the pandemic.

Teale makes a gruff, bluff Scrooge, making clear at the outset that this miserly stay-at-home has no time for revellers and even less patience for appeals to charity. Is Christmas “cause for trespass” he asks the hapless Bob Cratchit (Roger Dipper), who is later fired in any case for poor time-keeping.

Scrooge visibly chafes at the very notion of beneficence and is at a scowlingly low ebb when a portent arrives like something out of Shakespeare that he will face up to three separate spirits before this parable of psychic balm has played itself out.

The production makes plain the violence doled out to the young Scrooge by his debt-ridden scold of a father (Sebastian Torkia) and the extent to which the parade of Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future represents turning points in a therapeutic reckoning with psychic damage. (Jenny Fitzpatrick’s Christmas Present, a mysterious figure in sunglasses, gets a great moment late on in this spectre’s desire to be known as Brenda.)

A bewhiskered Teale posits Scrooge’s steadfast refusal to learn even as the story pivots on his capacity for change. That very quality “is in all of us,” notes his onetime defender Belle (a charming Lydia White), for whom Scrooge has long harboured romantic feelings.

Before you know it, Scrooge professes real love for his nephew Fred (Dominic Sibanda) and is getting out of the way of a turkey that comes hurtling along the same cruciform walkway – designed by Tony-winner Rob Howell – where we have earlier seen Jacob Marley trailed by more chains than one would have thought possible.

At its limitlessly moving core, this story is one of a necessary emotional awakening that has resonances for us all, not least in an era newly gripped by near-Dickensian levels of want and need as Teale’s finely calibrated appeal to the audience following the curtain call makes clear.

The actor finds more laughs in the role than I remember: “you can’t have too many potatoes,” he notes in a second act that replaces bleakness with bounty and showers delighted playgoers with fast-melting snow. Teale’s avuncularity is at first a tad offputting, as if he were holding the depths of the part at arm’s length in a way that last year’s leading man, the matchless Stephen Mangan, never did.

But as the narrative shifts towards inclusion, Teale digs further down and was seen daubing an eye during his climactic exchange with Tiny Tim (played at the performance caught by Casey-Indigo Blackwood-Lashley). A smile from Scrooge looks to be as hard-won as laughter was once deemed to be from Greta Garbo, but this production succeeds in wresting from playgoers far more than just a grin.

As the auditorium erupts in the final sequence into song, dance, snow, and merriment, one’s joy is tempered only by the prospect of its absence. That duality sends playgoers tearfully into the night, their empathy reinforced just as Scrooge himself is spiritually restored.

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic to 7 January.

Photo credit: Owen Teale as Scrooge (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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