A Christmas Carol is arguably one of the greatest tales ever told, but how to retell it with new light? How do you give it the wow necessary for a festive show at the Royal Shakespeare Company? Do you dare to dabble with Dickens?
Of course there’s no Dickens dabbler finer than David Edgar. His Nicholas Nickleby was the stuff of legend and his words and retelling of the story for this is perfectly, beautifully great.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh’s production opens with a bare dark stage (‘what ho!’ thinks the collective audience, ‘call this festive?’) and Dickens himself enters arguing with his editor and friend John Forster. Dickens wants to write a tract about child poverty, Foster implores him to write it as a ‘story that will echo down the ages’. The author acquiesces and… bosh! Snow falls and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ gloriously imposing Victorian street setting swings in – soot dark brick walls, candlelit and imposing, and the crowds make merry, except for one humbugging businessman, Scrooge – played with subtlety and wit by the perfectly scowly faced Phil Davis.
Dickens’ presence narrating the action is a clever way of lending the story another dimension and in particular allows a renewed political edge. Nicholas Bishop plays him with charm and passion and when he spouts grim statistics on child poverty, it doesn’t feel clumsy or laboured, just heartbreakingly appropriate and lends this Christmas tale proper clout and emotional depths.
Fear not though, Dickens purists, all the novel’s prerequisite scenes are lovingly and magically rendered here: the door knocker with Marley’s face, the visits by the ghosts, and the night flight ghost tour visits to Scrooge’s past, present and future.
The amazing transforming sets, video, conjuring tricks, lavish costumes and no doubt smoke and mirrors are all used to make this into an eyebogglingly visual and brain imploding festive feast. But it’s the tremendous heart of this production that make it perfect for Christmas.
See next week’s Herald arts for a longer version of this review.