To say Charles Dickens’ story is a festive favourite would be an understatement. Each Yule brings multiple productions – and in this extraordinary year, its moral message of generosity, both spiritual and material, and its warning against the evils of untrammelled capitalism have clearly struck an even more resounding chord than usual. Not only is the Old Vic’s excellent adaptation by Jack Thorne back, albeit online only, but it’s among no fewer than five notable versions playing in the capital alone, from a reworking by comedian Eddie Izzard to Jermyn Street’s pocket-sized production and a glitzy full-scale West End staging of the musical by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Okrent. Most eagerly anticipated, though, was this one, at the Bridge, a venue that, with a string of well-chosen, meticulously socially distanced openings, has handled the hellscape of 2020 with impressive aplomb. Director and adaptor Nicholas Hytner does away with all the frills and furbelows, and focuses instead on Dickens’ text. There are no flashy special effects, the set and costumes are minimal, and the teeming characters are played by a cast of just three. But what a cast. Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo don top hats, night caps, mufflers or shawls to zip nimbly through the streamlined narrative, which runs at an interval-free 90 minutes. They are captivating, and the prose rings out, clear as a Christmas bell.
Simple projections play across a screen – sooty windows, a view of Tower Bridge, just as it still stands beyond this neighbouring theatre’s walls – and smoke billows. Above hangs a garland of looped chains, symbolic of the eternal misery that Scrooge, like Marley before him, is in the process of forging for himself. The stage is heaped with dark boxes – some are packing trunks, others look like money boxes, or coffins. From these, the actors construct their world, leading us from bustling London streets to Scrooge’s office and bedroom and out on his redemptive nocturnal journey with the three ghosts.
Russell Beale makes a flinty Scrooge, sharp and self-satisfied, cracking bitter jokes with barely a glimmer of mirth. When he’s confronted with his neglected boyhood self, it’s shattering. In a keenly judged, subtly played instant, we glimpse a lifetime’s emotional damage. Ferran, her eyes so soulful and expressive, transforms from shivering Bob Cratchit to a prosperous and beneficent “portly gentleman” just by dint of stuffing a woolly scarf up her jumper; and she breaks your heart as Belle, the woman Scrooge should have married, and as Fan, the sickly sister whose loss calcified the cruelty that his father’s abuse had already engendered in Ebenezer. Figueiredo, meanwhile, is impishly mercurial, turning from a lugubrious Scots Marley to an exuberant Asian second Spirit, bringing a touch of Diwali to the festive scene, the whole auditorium suddenly blazing with fairy lights, and a Jamaican charwoman. In fact, this onstage London is a multicultural city, just as it has, in reality, always been: the boy a reformed Scrooge sends to buy the Cratchits a prize turkey goes to “Hassan’s butchers” to buy it.
If this exemplary trio are the only actors, who is beneath the inky cowl of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? The production is keeping its secret, a nicely spooky touch. And there’s some eerie puppetry, too, with a frail Tiny Tim and two emaciated phantom beggar children, Ignorance and Want. A final moment of disco-dancing jollity in gaudy Christmas jumpers feels incongruous, but otherwise everything is beautifully judged. And there can be no doubt that this classic remains piercingly pertinent: Scrooge’s callous remark that the vulnerable at risk of dying had better “do it, and decrease the surplus population” suddenly sounds like a grotesque echo of sentiments expressed in similar language during the pandemic by some pundits and politicians. Above all, though, this production is like a welcoming hearth that invites us to warm ourselves at the story’s familiar glow. Comfort and joy have rarely felt so essential.