Simon Russell Beale in A Christmas Carol at the Bridge Theatre (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

'A Christmas Carol' at the Bridge Theatre is holiday magic

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
In this miserly year given over in so many cases to illness and isolation, the arrival of A Christmas Carol as the festive-season title of choice seems especially popular. Dickens's tale of gradually awakened generosity is cropping up at numerous addresses around town to remind us of the human and societal interconnectedness that has sometimes gone walkabout in our divisive and plague-ridden times.
The time-honored story may be proliferating anew, or getting a fresh makeover courtesy Matthew Warchus's holiday perennial take on it at the Old Vic, but it's difficult to imagine a more blue-chip approach than that taken by adapter-director Nicholas Hytner for his Bridge Theatre. The southeast London venue has been at the vanguard of live performance during the pandemic, having first opened its doors in late August with Ralph Fiennes in a Covid-themed new play by David Hare. And here it is hosting a trio of actors across 90 emotionally charged minutes and landing a familiar parable a newfound knockout punch.
First among equals must surely be Simon Russell Beale, who in a non-coronavirus year would have been repeating his bravura turn in The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway. That three-actor epic was surely the best possible training for the deft passing of the baton required here in a filleting of Dickens's source that, much like Lehman before it, effortlessly folds narration into the drama and asks its protean performers to change characters, accents and sometimes even genders on a dime. (His brief turn as Scrooge's niece's plump sister is one to treasure.)
For the most part, though, the actor-knight plays Ebenezer Scrooge. Literature's legendary crank is envisaged this time out as a determined scold who has it within himself to soften, abetted by the various ghosts and by the call to compassion signalled not just by Tiny Tim but by the appearance of Ignorance and Want - all three of whom are played by puppets able to make of this legendary scold an individual equipped both to embrace joy and to share it around, as well. Jon Clark's bravura lighting is given over to flashes of illumination that work as visual symbols of Scrooge's own reckoning: you feel this Scrooge being led into the light both literally and metaphorically, his moral callousness ready for correction. (Russell Beale has been scheduled to star in John Gabriel Borkman coming in 2021 at the Bridge, and one hopes that Ibsen revival will be able to happen.) 
Grabbing their fair share of stage time are Patsy Ferran (herself due to have opened on Broadway this past spring in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing Honey) and Eben Figueiredo, late of the hipster James McAvoy Cyrano. Ferran as ever is a marvel, whether embodying a hapless, androgynous-seeming Bob Cratchit or finding something resonantly tremulous in her fleeting appearance as Scrooge's lost love, Belle. Figueiredo brings a contemporary vibe to an array of parts that includes a Scottish-accented Jacob Marley and that at one point finds him riding on in a mountain bike: purists may be relieved to know that such modern-day anachronisms, while intermittently present, are judiciously chosen and skilfully placed.
Hytner's propulsive staging includes a clamorous sound design from Gareth Fry that keeps the stage teeming with life even as we are sent swirling from one location to the next. That sense of a show perpetually on the move is due in no small measure to the video work of Luke Halls and Zakk Hein, their footage communicating realms well beyond the pile-up of crates and boxes that defines Rose Revitt's Victorian-era set. And when we finally land at that fabled place of charity and good cheer with which Dickens's Carol must conclude, the commingling of emotion from pathos to comedy and back again strikes somewhere very deep indeed. The performers may unveil some Christmas-themed sweaters to strike an apposite sartorial note just in time for the curtain call, but the production's real success has not to do with clothes but with an ability to remint this appeal to the heart so that it honestly and urgently pierces ours.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Bridge Theatre through Jan 16. Find more information about A Christmas Carol tickets here. 

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