STAGE REVIEW: A Christmas Carol

PUBLISHED: 16:15 19 December 2019 | UPDATED: 16:15 19 December 2019

A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic in London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic in London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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A dilution of Dickens, TIM WALKER reviews a stage production of A Christmas Carol.

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There's a peculiar intimacy to A Christmas Carol. It's Charles Dickens holding his readers by the scruff of the neck, saying he knows about the weaknesses of each and every one of them, and warning that if they don't mend their ways, then they're in for trouble, if not the eternal fires of hell.

It's the ideal showcase for a single actor, all alone on a stage, so long as that individual has the versatility to portray the novella's rich and diverse range of characters. Simon Callow and Dominic Gerrard have both risen to the occasion magnificently in one-man shows in recent years, and, happily, the latter is reviving his at the Dickens Museum at the great writer's old home at 48 Doughty Street in London from December 16 to 30. I have no hesitation in recommending it.

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As for the Old Vic's A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus, I'm not so sure. I think it simply shows you can actually have too much of a good thing. Here is a cast of 16, seven understudies, four musicians, some lavish costumes and special effects, and the show all played out on a stage that's been especially reconfigured for the occasion, but, alas, the sheer scale and ambition of the enterprise serves only to dilute Dickens's very personal message.

There are some good things to be said about it. I liked the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Myra McFadyen) from a long walk-way from the wings, with an endless train of chains in her wake. The death of Tiny Tim (played by young Rayhaan Kufuor-Gray on opening night) was very touchingly handled. I liked the fake candle lights hanging from the rafters as it makes it all feel very Victorian. I think, too, Paterson Joseph is very good at playing Scrooge.

It's just that the endless showers of soap suds - doubling up for snowflakes - and the potatoes, apples and oranges that trundle down upon the stage via white sheets from up in the gods, not to mention all the often elaborate theatrical pyrotechnics, just started after a while to grate. It gives the Dickens classic the feeling of a pantomime, which is, quite frankly, all wrong.

Dickens set about writing this work with fire in his belly. He was sick to death of the casual inhumanity he was seeing all around him in Victorian England and he wanted to put a stop to it. He could see how much it was getting out of hand and he knew that it would not end well.

His was ultimately a very serious piece of work. I've seen its message passionately and eloquently expressed upon the faces of Messrs Callow and Gerrard and many other great actors over the years. In Warchus' big budget extravaganza, I found the focus was lost and so was the point. C'est magnifique, one can only say, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.

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