A Christmas Carol review – Old Vic, London

Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge faces the ghost of Marley
Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Christmas Carol review – Old Vic, London

Rating: ★★★★★

Directed by the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Jack Thorne wastes no time getting to the action. The opening’s beautiful, delicate hand-bell ringing ends on a dissonant note as it rings in the death of Marley (Andrew Langtree) and introduces the parsimonious Ebenezer Scrooge, played in this year’s production by the pitch-perfect Christopher Eccleston.

There is no gimmickry in the casting of the Old Vic’s now-annual production, which is currently its sixth revival and very much part of London’s Christmas landscape. Eccleston’s brows is furrowed, his face aged by the wrinkles the tension creates, shadows gathering around his eyes – his face and body wound tight. It makes the change in Scrooge all the more apparent at the end as Eccleston’s Scrooge mentally and physically relaxes and unwinds.

The ensemble of A Christmas Carol perform with hand bells, a whistle and a cello
Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are strong performances on display here in addition to Eccelston’s star turn. You can feel the soul of Alastair Parker’s Fezziwig while Frances McNamee gives an understated performance as the humble Belle who is happy with the life she has led, embuing her with the morals her father Fezziwig held dear. The supporting cast is strong too, though Rose Shalloo struggles at times to add emotional heft to Little Fan and Andrew Langtree doesn’t quite add a third dimension to Scrooge’s father, though his Marley is perfectly ethereal. The relationship between Eccleston’s Scrooge and Freddie Marshall-Ellis, one of four young actors who play Tiny Tim across the run, feels genuine and touching.

Rob Howell’s clever stage design places the action in the middle of the Old Vic’s auditorium so that we feel immersed in the action. There’s a neatness to Thorne’s storytelling and Warchus’s direction – coming in at under two hours, including an interval and some additional Christmas cheer at the end, there is around an hour and a half of story here. There is no fat to trim from this Christmas feast.

Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Thorne seems to pinpoint the exact moment in Scrooge’s life where he makes the decision that defines his entire future – his sliding doors moment. Spurning the humble path of life and love that Fezziwig sees for him with his daughter, Scrooge chooses a path seemingly laid in excess, with horses and carriages and a life of luxury, but that leads to ascetic, miserly loneliness instead.

It seems to draw modern parallels, casting Scrooge as indicative of the wider societal problem that angered Dickens, but in a way that can still be seen in today’s society. As the Ghost of Christmas Present provides him with a telescope to view his mark on the world, he is presented with the scars he has inflicted on the London high street. The butcher, the grocers, ‘every shop seems to be closed’ as a result of Scrooge’s financial practices. These were debts owed, argues Scrooge.

The Company in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Thorne casts a powerful image as, in an effort to assure himself of his position, Scrooge draws out his ledger as the ghost departs to tot up the debts and balance them out. But his hands tremble – it seems he is not counting the debts of the butcher or grocer, but weighing up his own debt to society and coming to the realisation that he is coming up short. Eccleston brings true panic to his Scrooge.

Despite the presence of real ghosts, there is a suggestion within Thorne’s text that the real haunting is not from the spirits Scrooge meets during their visitations but from his alcoholic, debt-ridden father. There is also a clear sense that the Scrooge that emerges on Christmas morning was always there but had been buried and repressed. In talking with his nephew he reveals the love that he held for him all along, recounting in detail the things his nephew had said and done; events not shown to him by the ghosts.

In its ending, A Christmas Carol brings a message of hope and joy, love and happiness, redemption and forgiveness – and it earns the tears of joy visible around the auditorium. This is a perfect production and the best Christmas show you will see this year or any year.

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic until 6 Jan

Although this is rated 5-stars by our reviewer, we’re no longer providing star-ratings for most productions – click here to read about why we’re scaling back on star-ratings