Photo credit: A Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Old Vic)

'A Christmas Carol' at The Old Vic review — Stephen Mangan is definitive as Scrooge

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

How do you improve upon perfection? Here's one suggestion: hire Stephen Mangan. I've now seen Matthew Warchus's gloriously moving, riotously entertaining production of A Christmas Carol four times, including once virtually during the pandemic. So you can well imagine that I thought I knew everything that the production, and Jack Thorne's adaptation, had to offer. As if. 

Watching Mangan, a Tony-nominated alum of Warchus's remarkable revival of The Norman Conquests, is to witness an actor in such full command of his character's emotional arc that a potentially over-familiar story knocked me sideways, as if afresh. This man's genius is to play everything for real, jettisoning any received wisdom about the narrative so that it continually surprises anew. First heard in roaring voice before he is seen, here is a Scrooge who takes no prisoners, who rails against what he calls "the singing creatures" and has as little room in his life for music as he does for mirth.

I suppose it's obvious to think of Scrooge's emotional awakening as an exercise in therapy, but Mangan really brings that point home. Urged to look back in pain at his unhappy relationship with his father (the excellent Andrew Langtree, another Warchus semi-regular), Scrooge must confront the psychic burden of his first employer, Fezziwig (James Staddon), and, especially, of that man's daughter, Belle (Karen Fishwick), whom this moneylender might have loved but has in fact lost. Far better to put on blinkers and charge forward - or, as he says by way of self-rationalisation, "I simply must maintain my own path". 

When he softens, Scrooge smiling becomes the equivalent of front-page news. "I do love Christmas," this onetime miser finds it within himself to exult, Mangan's eyes moisting over in thrall to the sort of emotional surrender we ask from the theatre and all too rarely get. By the time he and his nephew Fred (Oli Higginson, deftly shifting gears after his hefty assignment as the male half of The Last Five Years) are belting proclamations of love across different levels of The Old Vic auditorium, a rapt house is audibly cooing by way of response, this Scrooge's openness to change a psychological paradigm worthy of Freud but here pioneered by Dickens. 

The pandemic has surely whetted actors' appetite for performance, and it's frankly amazing to find a production retread - which is what this is - cast to such a high level. In addition to the names mentioned above, mention must be made of onetime Hamilton star Rachel John as an unusually urgent Ghost of Christmas Present and Jack Shalloo as a vulnerable Bob Cratchit, the hapless clerk who early on tests Scrooge's compassion. 

At the same time, attention returns repeatedly to Mangan, not least in self-inquisitive mode when pondering whether he might himself be "past all hope". This defining central performance exists within a luxuriant production that, since it was first seen at this address with Rhys Ifans in 2017, has stormed Broadway, winning a clutch of Tony Awards including a clean sweep for its designers, and one can see why: Hugh Vanstone's shimmering lighting conjoins with Rob Howell's wondrous set to immerse us in a world of falling Brussels sprouts and readily available satsumas, not to mention a magical forest of lanterns that provides the perfect backdrop for the show's aural delights.

Those, in turn, include copious ringing of bells (a throwback to my own schoolboy Christmases) and a soundscape from fellow Tony-winner Christopher Nightingale that folds his original compositions into a ravishing sequence of carols that is seen to sweep Scrooge up in a wonder as wild-eyed as the actor's hair. The music, from "Il est né, le divin Enfant" through to mainstays like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," every time-honoured title beautifully arranged, saturates an evening that cuts to the soul, and to the essence of the theatrical, too. 

"There is so much you do not wish to see," Scrooge is informed somewhere along his often-reluctant path to enlightenment, which makes it that much more moving to find this scold reformed as a true visionary. At the end, Mangan stills the applause to make a heartfelt appeal to charity. The remarks spring directly from the heart of a superlatively empathic actor whose transformative powers will stay with me through next Christmas, at least.

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic to 8 January.

Photo credit: A Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Old Vic)

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