A CHRISTMAS CAROL

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _1st JAN.

November 16, 2022

images © Manuel Harlen @ RSC.

For a text that has been celebrated in service of everything from singing frogs, foul-mouthed pensioners to even, well, Ross Kemp, there remains a general revery and formula to more literal adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Strip away franchise or gimmick, and many of the countless transplants of the festive favourite tend to remain doggedly pure to the source material; for better or worse, lesser or more.

Doubtless this is, in part, owing to the prose and dialogue of the original being a veritable smorgasbord of iconic, endlessly quotable lines that have seeped through to our collective cultural consciousness. If it ain’t broke, don’t tinker needlessly. There is such a thing as over-stuffing the Christmas Goose.

And yet, as the RSC showcase in this rich, luminous production, keenly adapted by David Edgar, it’s perfectly possible to take the beloved tale of curmudgeonly Scrooge and his otherworldly intervention, and delve even beyond the scope of the page.

This isn’t the first year that the RSC have staged this particular production, and yet, landing as it does on the approach to a Christmas period tainted with buzz warnings like ‘stagflation’, ‘cost of living’ and, indeed, ‘living within our means’, this more exploratory and probing Carol carries with it extra pathos and poignancy.

Fundamentally a story concerned with poverty and class division, the innate timelessness of Dickens’ fantasy is further buoyed here by some wonderfully welcome and affecting embellishment of the tale’s core themes. Moments given fairly rudimentary passing in other tellings, such as Mrs Cratchit’s (Emma Pallant) disdain for the miserly ways of her husband’s employer, here breathe into full-blown familial conflict, and foster a more fleshed out arc and growth for kindly Bob (Mitesh Soni).

Better than his word… -The original novel of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (first edition copy, pictured above) not only sold out by Christmas Eve in the year of its publishing (1843), but so too does it remain one of the mostly widely circulated, published and adapted literary works of all time. It is also heavily credited with reflecting, and potentially bolstering, the Mid-Victorian renaissance of celebrating the Christmas holiday, for which it has remained a staple ingredient for many, ever since.

For certain, the core fable that we all know and love is here, telling the time-travelling spectral redemption of tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge. And it isn’t all doom, gloom and sorrow, either; the more fantastical elements being intact and delivered with all the lavish grandeur and quality to be expected from the RSC. Edgar and co. even flirt with modernity in places, too – see the knowingly-monickered ‘Mrs Snapchat’ or ‘Mr Hinge’ – and there’s even a cheeky, slightly post-modern dig at Boris Johnson tucked away during a parlour game. But it’s really in its plumbing of the core raison d’être of Dickens’ intent that this Carol really sings. This is perhaps best showcased in Dickens himself being drawn into proceedings (winningly portrayed by Gavin Fowler), acting as a de facto narrator of sorts, and giving him moments of real reflection and resonance with Tiny Tim and the everyman proxies of the unfortunate Cratchit family.

“…it’s really in its plumbing of the core raison d’être of Dickens’ intent that this Carol really sings.”

Probing a little deeper into the more socially conscious elements of the text also gives a number of the excellent company a chance to shine in heavier moments. Mitesh Soni and Emma Pallant are excellent as the aforementioned Cratchit parents, despair creeping into the edges of their usually heartwarming home scenes, but engaging dramatic performances abound, even down to Clive Hayward’s jubilant Fezziweg who, despite his frivolity, offers glimpses of senility and further woes to come. Hayward is also a great example of a uniformly excellent company taking on a myriad of diverse and colourful roles throughout the show; his gnarly, wrenching Old Joe a mile away from the kindly benefactor.

Better than his word… -The original novel of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (first edition copy, pictured above) not only sold out by Christmas Eve in the year of its publishing (1843), but so too does it remain one of the mostly widely circulated, published and adapted literary works of all time. It is also heavily credited with reflecting, and potentially bolstering, the Mid-Victorian renaissance of celebrating the Christmas holiday, for which it has remained a staple ingredient for many, ever since.

Elsewhere, Rebecca Lacey offers a similar kaleidoscope of character riches, from a stern, inquisitorial Ghost of Christmas Past, to a conservative and belligerent aunt at a family gathering, and a gloriously wretched Laundress. Sunetra Sarker, similarly, impressively hops about the production in a variety of roles, including a real highlight being her flippant and sarcastic Ghost of Christmas Present, here given something of a Scouse lilt.

If the socio-political climate in which this iteration of Christmas Carol arrives lends it some extra resonant oomph, there’s another ace up the RSC’s sleeve in the form of this year’s Scrooge. Comedy favourite Adrian Edmonson imbues his take on the iconic miser with a sardonic glibness, and a sarcastic, mocking streak that offers echoes of some of Edmonson’s clowns, misfits and misanthropes of yesteryear. Where other performers opt to channel a Scrooge spewing unfiltered hatred and sheer malevolence, this Ebenezer, whilst requisitely mean-spirited and cold-hearted, carries an aura of just frankly being thoroughly ‘done’ with the world. Unsurprisingly, Edmonson also goes full throttle on the late-game pivot into giddy euphoria, which again is very welcomely expanded upon here. It’s a wonderfully original and colourful spin on the character and, coupled with the show’s thematic enrichment and narrative expansion, makes this a brimming and distinctive Christmas Carol that even those drunk on Dickens will take something new to savour from.

It’s a charming, resonant Christmas present, and one decadently wrapped; Stephen Brimson Lewis injects grandeur and plenty of Victorian character and spectacle to even the edges of the stage and auditorium. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is remarkably transportive and ambient, and the impact when coupled with Fergus O’ Hare’s sound design ranges from heartwarming and festive to, at one startling transitionary moment in particular, genuinely terrifying.

“It’s a charming, resonant Christmas present, and one decadently wrapped…”

The spectres of Christmas Past, Present and Future for many will likely carry countless iterations of A Christmas Carol alongside them for most of us. This is a story that has been told, and will continue to be told, in countless forms and variations. Its intrinsic timelessness, and key themes of charity, welfare and kindliness shan’t be dulled or rendered irrelevant any time soon. And yet, as the RSC confidently showcase in a sumptuous, affecting deep dive into one of Dickens’ finest works, there’s little reason even the timeless can’t be plucked and seasoned for extra dramaturgy.

Led by an inspired Ade Edmonson, and with all the opulent trimmings of a grand RSC spectacle, here is a rich, orotund staging of A Christmas Carol that, for so many reasons, and in so many ways, cements itself as a must-see in what will doubtless for many be a difficult, nigh-Dickensian festive period indeed.

A rich, lavish adaptation of a seminal, seasonal favourite, this ‘Carol’ offers a poignant, deeper dive into Dickens’, delivered by an inspired Scrooge and company.

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