mon 04/03/2024

A Christmas Carol, The Old Vic review - older, wiser, and yet more moving | reviews, news & interviews

A Christmas Carol, The Old Vic review - older, wiser, and yet more moving

A Christmas Carol, The Old Vic review - older, wiser, and yet more moving

Christopher Eccleston is a Scrooge for the ages

Ghosts: Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge and Andrew Langtree as MarleyImages - Manuel Harlan

Familiarity has bred something quite fantastic with the Old Vic Christmas Carol, which is back for a seventh season and merits ringing all available bells - those and a lost love called Belle being crucial to the show. Matthew Warchus's staging at this point seems a seasonal imperative, and in a wild-haired Christopher Eccleston, Jack Thorne's adaptation of Dickens's 1843 call to empathic arms has its most emotionally piercing and resonant leading man yet. 

I've seen all the various Scrooges, from Rhys Ifans in 2017 onwards, including a memorable Covid-era turn from Andrew Lincoln performed within an empty theatre. But Eccleston brings a near-maniacal intensity to the part that is quite something to experience. You might think you know all the notes that exist to be sounded in arguably the most extraordinary exercise in character-conversion ever.

But from the moment the ninth Doctor Who first stalks Rob Howell's runway-style set, this Scrooge leaves you in no doubt where his miserable thoughts lie. Death, he proclaims early on, is useful "to decrease the surplus population," and he sniffs at the word "charitable" as if swatting a verbal fly. Nor does he seem troubled by the promise of three ghosts - in this version, women dressed in glorious layers of patchwork. "I will not be haunted; I sleep well," he barks, as if somehow absorbing within himself the dog sent packing at the start. 

You can do a real therapeutic number on Scrooge, which the ever-busy Thorne (a scant three shows this season!) invites in his depiction of a lost soul who has long learned to bury deep within himself conflicting feelings of grievance and regret: a drunken scold of a father hasn't helped. He's a self-proclaimed realist with "nothing to learn" from the present, who is given a wondrous wake-up call that helps him to grow and understand. "I once was better than I am," he realises not before time. His task is to find that psychic place once more. 

And when he casts aside the yoke of bitterness and bile - the clanking, spectral Jacob Marley (the invaluable Andrew Langtree) is not the only person here enchained - his giddiness scoops up the audience with palpable joy. I may not have landed a satsuma or mince pie this time round, but those are paltry nourishments (however delicious) next to Eccleston's ability to salve the soul. (He's funny, too, chronicling Scrooge's occasional awareness of his hyperactive brain.) 

It's a measure of the affection in which this production is held that the cast includes multiple holdovers from previous go-rounds, amongst them Julie Jupp (pictured above) as a stooped, admonitory Ghost of Christmas Past, with Gemma Knight Jones (pictured below) sporting sunglasses like a shield against Scrooge's insensitivity as the Ghost of Christmas Present. 

Frances McNamee lends a grounding quiescence to Belle - a woman who has made peace with her life - even as Eccleston's excitable moneylender barrels his way toward what analysts like to call abreaction. And the cast as before are served by an exemplary design team that finds quite literal luminosity in what could elsewhere merely seem twee, Hugh Vanstone's lighting gives off a painterly shimmer throughout, and I love the way the doors of Rob Howell's wittily flexible set appear from the stage floor, like cages of a sort to the emotionally cramped, crabbed Scrooge. 

In a category all its own is Christopher Nightingale's Tony-winning score, which couples original composition with a panoply of carols whose arrangements moisten the eye before a word has even been spoken. I grew up hearing "Il est né, le divin enfant" every holiday season at school. so that's a joy to hear each year in this context, and I can't imagine a more ravishing use of "O Holy Night" than to amplify the fate of Tiny Tim. (That role is shared by four performers.)

And though we're advised that "life moves in directions we know not," the ongoing application of Dickens's message to our sometimes malignant-seeming times prompts a curtain call charitable appeal from Eccleston, for the first time all evening reverting to his actual Northern accent in favour of Scrooge's furiously spoken RP.

On press night, I witnessed most around me digging in their pockets so as to proffer a response. A separate question hovers, which is whether we can have this Christmas Carol forever, or at the very least for as long as its honestly won wisdom demands a place in our minds. And hearts. 

Comments

Was there 3rd January, 4th visit in three years and will be back for next Christmas New Year. Part of my Christmas now [like "It's a Wonderful Life" showing on TV] - joyful, life-enhancing, full of the spirit of the season. Please, please - keep it coming back!

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