Matthew Warchus’ staging of Charles Dickens’ never-more-timely morality tale brings the magic of a carol service to the West End. Staged in the round and lit by a cloud of lanterns, it’s an incredibly atmospheric production that makes superb use of the cathedral-like qualities of the Old Vic. Clementines and mince pies are distributed around the auditorium. There is an abundance of singing and bell ringing, and the theatre’s snow cannons are deployed on not one but two occasions. Basically, there are Christmassy shows, and then there’s this.
Amid all this Rhys Ifans makes a suitably spiky, if not overtly cruel, Scrooge, Dickens’ ice-hearted “old sinner” who believes the poor would be better off in the Union workhouses and that if a few people happen to expire as a result it will helpfully decrease the surplus population. With his frock coat and exclamation mark hair, his miser has a dash of the Doctor about him, albeit a spectacularly grumpy incarnation.
Jack Thorne’s relatively faithful adaptation sticks closely to the original short story and its Victorian setting. It lets Dickens’ words do their work, even if the reliance on narration means the first half suffers from a choppy quality that doesn’t allow Ifans’ Scrooge to do more much more than snarl and scowl. The scene with Marley’s ghost is visually impressive – his trail of chains runs the whole length of the stage – but it’s over in a moment.
But then Thorne opens things up in the second half, fleshing out Scrooge’s relationship with Belle, the girl he once loved, appealingly played by Erin Doherty. The three spirits of Christmas are also female (Myra McFayden, Golda Rosheuval and Melissa Allan), all echoes, it seems, of Scrooge’s dead sister Fan.
Christopher Nightingale’s music plays a large role, the choral arrangements brightening the theatre, as does Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with lanterns glinting above the stage like stars.
The second half is emotionally richer and, on occasion, truly moving, but then Thorne has form when it comes to making people sob quietly into their scarves.
Ifans has a lot of fun getting the audience to collaborate on the staging of the intensely festive finale, but Thorne’s adaptation also acknowledges the unconvincing rapidity with which Scrooge redeems himself and injects a note of ambiguity into the final scenes.
While at times it slathers on the sentimentality like butter on a crumpet – Tiny Tim, as played by the angelic Grace Fincham, one of a rotating cast of four young performers, is delicate as balsa wood – the production also contains an accusatory note. Eloquent about debt – Dickens never forgot the time he spent at boot-blacking factory as a child when his father was imprisoned in debtors prison – Thorne’s version concludes with an invitation to examine one’s own soul and dig into one’s own pockets.