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A Christmas Carol review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘feel-good festivity’

Aden Gillett in A Christmas Carol at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, David Edgar’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol returns with cast changes for more feel-good festivity. But though this fable of a miser’s change of heart at Christmastime is ultimately uplifting, Edgar foregrounds Dickens’s reforming zeal by putting more emphasis than usual on society’s dark shadows of ignorance and want – especially concerning children. This version is not so much about personal redemption as social conscience.

Edgar famously depicted the unacceptable face of capitalism in his epic, multiple-narrator adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC in 1980. For this more straightforward novella, Edgar has cleverly framed the action by making Dickens and his literary adviser John Forster part of the show: Forster persuades Dickens to write an appealing story rather than a political tract exposing the evils of child labour – with Dickens fired by his own experience of working in a warehouse aged 12.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s sprightly production prevents the Christmas pudding becoming stodgy, while impish humour stops the sentimental sauce being too sweet. This free-flowing show is full of movement, helped by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ flexible, snow-flecked design backed by a dimly lit tenement building, while live music, song and dance complement the drama. The supernatural effects are nicely quirky.

Aden Gillett persuasively maps money-lender Scrooge’s journey from misanthrope to benefactor, not just learning to engage emotionally with people but opening his eyes to social injustice, as his gruff-voiced, curt manner softens into sympathy.

Gerard Carey as his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit gets the biggest laugh of the night after finally giving vent to his pent-up feelings on Scrooge’s mean spiritedness when he thinks he’s been sacked – only to return when he belatedly realises his employer is actually giving him a raise.

Playwright David Edgar: ‘Becoming an actor has given me an insight into my own failings’

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 Lively account of Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable with a social conscience