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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
at the Old Vic

PURE AND TRUE
By SAM MARLOWE

  Paterson Joseph/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

You can’t chuck a snowball without hitting a production of the Charles Dickens classic at this time of year – so what makes this one special? This is its third outing at the Old Vic, and Matthew Warchus’ production has also just made its Broadway debut. And it remains a thing of loveliness and wonder. It’s richly, resolutely theatrical: from the moment we step into the auditorium, to be welcomed by actors handing out warm mince pieces and oranges, we’re invited to become part of its community, to partake in the process of bringing this most huge-hearted of stories to life. Its spectres are not just the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come, but theatre ghosts: fleet-footed figures in battered top hats and bonnets, swishing skirts, capes and overcoats, who melt away in the darkness or rematerialise, at Scrooge’s moment of redemption, to sing from high up in the shadows of the gods. It is gorgeously designed, and directed with imagination and ingenuity – no Hallmark clichés here, no fussy chocolate-box frills and ribbons. Instead, what we get is a muscular fable, sharpened and streamlined by Jack Thorne, that still goes straight to the heart of the real meaning of Christmas spirit, and that emotionally rings as pure and true as ever.
 
Paterson Joseph is this year’s Ebenezer, bringing a new vigour and edge to the role. His Scrooge is no frail old man, but robust and energetic, despite his few sparse strands of grey hair. And he is not so much irascible as savagely bitter. His disgust, in the opening scenes, with any display of festive cheer has an almost brutal force. That brings an acute poignancy, and an intense sweetness, to later moments, when we see his boyhood misery at the hands of a debt-ridden father (a relationship Thorne cannily ramps up), and his reunion with his one-time sweetheart, Belle, the woman with whom he should have spent his life.
 
The production partly takes its cue from that lost love’s name. A substantial element of its beauty, and its sense of collective experience, lies in its brilliant use of music. There is close-harmony carol singing, but the cast also playS handbells, producing silvery threads of melody that pierce and lift the soul. They chime and contrast with the sonorous toiling of church clocktower bells that measure out the hours of Scrooge’s haunting. And above designer Rob Howell’s cruciform, walkway stage hangs a constellation of Victorian lanterns. Their light surges and flickers, and, before the appearance of revenant Jacob Marley, a huge lamp swings perilously over Scrooge’s head, like a giant, fateful pendulum. This sinner is, we are left in no doubt, on borrowed time.
 
Marley himself, played by Andrew Langtree, who doubles as Scrooge’s weak, cruel pater, is a superbly spooky creation, drawing chains that spool painfully out across almost the entire length of the auditorium, before being snatched back into his infernal living death by an unseen force that appears to actually drag him off his feet. The trio of ghosts, meanwhile, comes clad in patchwork gowns that are echoed in the make-do-and-mend poverty of Ebenezer’s childhood, and specifically in the stitched-together rag scarf that his beloved sister, Little Fan, gives him as a Christmas present. The first two uncanny visitors push prams, one tiny, like a doll’s, the second lifesize; the third brings a funeral carriage topped with Scrooge’s own coffin. If the sight of Joseph desperately embracing his boyhood self on the casket’s lid doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, then you’re probably due for a redemptive haunting yourself to reconnect you with your own humanity.
 
Tiny Tim, too, is beautifully played, not by a puppet, as has become a popular theatrical choice, but by children with disabilities. Thorne gives him both a devastating near-death scene that wrenchingly reminds us of the real price of poverty and social inequality, and the production’s final word, after a climax flooded with golden illumination and gorgeous, joyous song. To say nothing of a festive feast in which Brussels sprouts descend on tiny parachutes, and potatoes roll down from the dress circle on sheets unfurled over the audience’s heads. In fact, like the giant turkey winched in to furnish the Cratchits’ meagre Christmas table, the whole show is richly satisfying, and done to a turn. And perhaps the best way to sum it up is in the words of Dickens himself, in the final pages of his novella: “Oh, glorious, glorious!”

 


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