A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic
By Charles Dickens in a version by Jack Thorne
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1
until January 20, 2018
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Ah, Christmas, that time of year when theatres think we’ve all lost our critical faculties and can only be fed the sickly sweet, the sentimental or the stodgy in a menu of creaky pantos, Snowmen or Nutcrackers, which run until regular business is resumed in January.
The Old Vic has taken a different tack this year though and director Matthew Warchus has opted for a rather classy and inventive staging of the Dickens classic which manages to pull off being both refreshing and comforting at the same time.
Key to its success is a script by Jack Thorne, who did such sterling work in adapting Harry Potter for the stage. This story, which first appeared in 1834, has of course had numerous incarnations from Mickey Mouse to The Muppets, so it is refreshing to see a version which strips the novella back to its simple essence. Warchus and Thorne downplay the schmaltz and instead turn up the merriment. This is a party Christmas Carol. This is mainly achieved by the inventiveness of a top notch design team, led by Rob Howell and Hugh Vanstone, who are totally let loose.
The fourth wall is dispensed with, some audience are seated upstage and the auditorium is cleft in two by a runway on which the action unfolds. This is immersive Christmas with lots of snow, golden lanterns and at one stage a rather odd delivery system for the elements of Scrooge’s feast, when everything from sausages to sprouts are precariously lowered from the upper circle using a variety of clever means.
On arrival we’re met by cheery Victorians dispensing mince pies and there is a Carol overload. Christopher's Nightingale’s arrangements, as well as his own compositions, are interpolated throughout to great effect and all are beautifully sung by the ensemble. They all even get to produce some accomplished bell ringing too.
Door frames rise up from the floor and seem to imprison Scrooge in a cage of his own making as he tries to shut out the do-gooders but these prove no barrier to the three spectres (here all female) who will haunt him.
At the centre of it all is Rhys Ifans, yes that incorrigible, Welsh, scruff from Notting Hill who is slowly morphing into the next Peter O'Toole. His Fool to Glenda Jackson’s King Lear, also at this theatre, was a triumph and has set him off on a new course. With his lanky frame, a thatch of untended hair and a bedraggled air, he is perfect casting here. The velvet of his frock coat has long worn bare but what we get here is a man with a psyche as worn as his coat. We see how the miserable abuse doled out by his father has scarred him as well as the witnessing of the horrors of a life of debt.
What we have here is a more emotionally available Scrooge and it’s all the better for it.