Review - The Old Vic's A Christmas Carol returns with Paterson Joseph
Charles Dickens's fable A Christmas Carol - originally published as a novella in 1843 which he subsequently performed himself in public readings - has become as much a part of the festive season as the Queen's Christmas Message, carol concerts and mince pies. The Old Vic's stage version - back for a third consecutive year and also now running simultaneously on Broadway - could very well be added to this list to become an annual staple in Waterloo, just as the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been gloriously re-established (also coming up for its 3rd annual iteration this year).
Director Matthew Warchus harnesses his usual reliable supporting bank of creatives that include set and costume designer Rob Howell, composer/arranger Christopher Nightingale, and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone (who each fulfilled the same duties on Matilda, Groundhog Day and Ghost, and all of which also travelled from London to Broadway) for an exquisitely theatrical feast of a multi-layered ghost story. It makes an (over)familiar tale seem fresh, surprising and relevant all over again, as Ebenezer Scrooge, the pin-up man for life's misers and miseries, is taken on a journey into his past, present and future -- and finds redemption in the process.
There are already multiple musical theatre versions of the story, including Scrooge, scored by Leslie Bricusse (based on a 1970 film) that was last seen in the West End at the London Palladium in 2012 starring Tommy Steele in the title role. But whereas that was broad, tuneful and jaunty with a touch of the pantomime about it, this entirely delightful show takes the story both far more seriously and also more imaginatively.
It goes a lot darker and deeper, to locate some of the grievous hurts that led Scrooge on his path as well as the wrongs he does. It also employs a reconfigured arrangement for the Old Vic stalls (also recently used for Lungs at this address) that wrap entirely around a new stage, from which a giant ramp protrudes that extends to the back of the theatre. This brings us much closer to the action - and the production regularly presses us into direct involvement, most notably towards the end when everyone assists in preparing the goods to be delivered to Bob Cratchit's family. (And before the show begins, actors wander around the theatre offering fresh satsumas to get us into the mood).
Almost entirely re-cast since its previous outings here, Paterson Joseph now follows Rhys Ifans and Stephen Tompkinson as Scrooge; and if his propensity to visibly sweat throughout the show may indicate some nervousness on the part of the actor, it adds to a sense of his vulnerability beneath the usual 'Bah, Humbug' bluster. In other words, he is more human and less of an ogre.
He is joined by a fine company of supporting actors, including Andrew Langtree, Rebecca Trehearn and Fred Haig, who I've previously known mainly for their roles in musical theatre, but here bring dramatic depth as well as their fine voices to the mostly ensemble singing. (There is, however, a moment of shivery magic when Trehearn's glorious voice can be heard coming solo from the upper circle).
The music-making - some of it on hand-held bells by the entire cast - is exquisite, as a series of popular carols are performed under the musical direction of Oli Jackson. Rob Howell's atmospheric set - with suspended lanterns hanging over the entire auditorium -- contributes its own delicate magic to a Christmas treat that's perfect for the entire family.
A Christmas Carol tickets are available now.