Sarah Halford reviews A Christmas Carol at the RSC, which runs until 20th January
DICKENS would be heartbroken and ecstatic at the RSC’s production of A Christmas Carol – in the first instance because the social injustice and poverty he railed against in the original had not changed in 175 years and, in the second, that the evident joyous humanity and hope had not altered one wit during almost two centuries and therefore his indefatigable optimism for the future had not fallen on deaf ears. As his Scrooge was designed to demonstrate, even the hardest of hearts and the most resolute of cynics could find redemption and compassion and souls and society could be saved, even at the eleventh hour. As the refrain that echoes throughout the RSC production makes clear, this is a tale that echoes stubbornly down the centuries and, by the same token, it is never too late to change.
It is safe to say that the Victorians haunt us; we are children of the Victorians and this is nowhere more evident than that every drama group and his dog needs must produce a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year. Everyone loves a Victorian Christmas, it seems.
The RSC, too, has been compelled to resurrect its production of the icon that is A Christmas Carol by popular demand. Tickets to its stupendous production of 2017 were like gold dust, such that the company brought it back for a second helping this Christmas and, again, tickets have sold like hot chestnuts. There is another good reason for this, though, other than that it’s Dickens and it’s Christmas – this magnificent production is pure magic and, like a fermenting mulled wine, tastes so much better the second time around.
Certainly, the ingredients have changed – it is bigger, better, slicker, funnier and just, well, more of everything. And there’s a new Scrooge. And, he is utterly compelling. Phil Davis left enormous footprints to fill with his stupendous 2017 Scrooge, a scowling, pudgy Steptoe played with a depth and sophistication hard to match. Aden Gillett, though, pulls it off with aplomb. Certainly, he is his own Scrooge: lankier, leaner and meaner than Davis, he is angular and suitably scathing but makes a seamless transition between crabby chrysalis and generous, socially conscious butterfly with consummate ease and considerable humour.
The stroke of genius in this production is having Dickens speak for himself, as a character in his own right who explains that an apparently twee slice of ebullient Christmas fiction is actually a more effective way of hammering home the hard-to-swallow bitter pill of time-honoured inequality and suffering. This is a case of deja vu for a 21st-century audience – the social context is different yet as uncannily familiar as the tale itself. It is an age of foodbanks, beggars and an ever-widening gap between the oblivious haves and severely straitened have-nots, who, despite their ubiquitous iPhones remain stubbornly impoverished and socially immobile. There’s even a Trump joke thrown in to make sure the fact that this tale is still a live one doesn’t escape anyone. Indeed, there are moments when despite all the heart-wrenching one might yearn for the joy in simple and spirited pleasures that the Victorians could still indulge in and that we may have lost.
This is no wall-to-wall dark social comment, though. Quite the contrary – it is full of sheer joy, energy, spectacle and fun. Proof of the Christmas pudding as to whether this is a must-see festive treat is that a scan round the audience at various points reveals that not one of them does not have a smile on their face or a lump in their throat. That, as they say, is entertainment.