It’s always something of a pleasure to see a production with no preconceptions ahead of it. En route to the theatre I’d avoided critics, reviews, acquaintances’ comments and any form of promotion whatsoever. Of course, one thing about A Christmas Carol that’s almost impossible not to have preconceptions about is the plot. Like fairy tales and Shakespeare, it is possibly one of the most ubiquitously known stories in, well, story-telling.
And, like Shakespeare and every other perennially entertaining, edifying and relevant fable, we keep returning. In the case of A Christmas Carol, it’s that crackling log fire on a chilly Christmas Eve, a comforting blanket and glass of mulled wine, setting the mood for the season’s celebrations.
The first preconception evaporated when I stepped into the familiar surroundings of the Old Vic’s auditorium to find the stage had been turned on its head; through the middle of the stalls a runway led through the proscenium where racked seating had been installed and audience members assembled.
Top-hatted, frock-coated characters bid us good evening, a string ensemble played a dandy tune, and, as we sat, a bonneted lady offered us a mince pie. As we neared curtain up, more characters poured into the proceedings, interacting with the audience and setting the scene. This was what director Matthew Warchus meant when he said it would be ‘interactive’, that communal activities are morally uplifting, “the nature of gathering together in a shared experience makes us better for it.”
And so it was.
The stage – or lack of it – being set, we the audience were in the mix. Characters emerge from rows, sing from balconies in the circle and at various points the audience are actively encouraged to participate.
There is a clever use of the chorus to give the narrative, and music – often carols – running throughout gives it pace, punctuated delightfully by the cast’s bell-ringing interludes. And while the set design might be minimalist – very minimalist, in fact – it’s the lighting that heightens the drama; ethereal moods set for the ghosts aside, a multitude of Victorian lanterns suspended from the ceiling appear to comment on the action when it’s particularly emotive. All of this is intended to embrace its inclusivity – and it does – culminating in a delightful finale the morning Scrooge wakes on Christmas Day that completely immerses the audience.
Die-hard fans of the story will not be disappointed, though; Jack Thorne’s adaptation is faithful to its origins but with a few interpretive twists – for one, the ghosts in this case are all ‘nannies’ of different ages (but then doesn’t every production interpret the ghosts differently?) – and while the syntax for the most part is Dickensian, there is the occasional nod to the contemporary.
Seasonal interest aside, the other draw for this production is undoubtedly Rhys Ifans. Scrooge’s are big shoes to fill, for like any archetype, from Hamlet to Bond, everyone has their benchmark – for me, I found I was setting him against a curious hybrid of Alastair Sim and Michael Caine.
While his Scrooge is less the hand-wringing miser, more the hysterical curmudgeon, his performance is comically nuanced, emotionally raw and, at times, thoroughly tender. There’s a wonderful moment at the end when he clutches his younger self, urging him to be anything he can be, from a teacher to an explorer; “just don’t be me,” he intones. My companion even admitted to shedding a tear.
As Warchus quoted at the end of his introduction, ‘prejudice cannot survive proximity’. We had been immersed in Dickens, in theatre, in Christmas, and we left buoyed and brisk, singing carols into the cold night air.
Ladies and gentlemen, the starting gun to Christmas 2017 has gone off. Let the festivities begin!
A Christmas Carol runs at The Old Vic until 20th January 2018. For more information, and to book tickets, visit www.oldvictheatre.com.