A Christmas Carol is a timely narrative in any given year, but the RSC’s 2022 production has a particular and urgent relevance. It is a reworking that manages to retain delicious Dickensian quality, whilst scrutinising it through a very current lens. And it is the inclusion of Dickens, and his editor Forster, as storytellers that frames this presentation so effortlessly.
The play opens with Dickens, desperate to do something to address the injustice of poverty, telling Forster that he wants to write an article on child-labour to provoke social change. It is Forster who convinces him to write a story rather than an article, and it is in this moment of decision-making that the themes, the foundation of the story and Dickens’ intentions all come, quite literally, to life.
This Christmas Carol is about children, shown by a rotating cast of young people who take on the roles of the Cratchit children, apprentices, beggars and manifestations. It is shown by the boy Scrooge and his relationship with the man Scrooge, and it is shown through the tragedy of Scrooge’s sister dying in childbirth and in the hope of his nephew Fred’s wife, pregnant with a future “living relative” for Scrooge.
Intertwined through the script are statistics and stories which tell us of the terrible conditions and mortality prospects of those young people – the lines blur, and we are unsure if the children are representative of the 1840s or the 2020s.
While this production centres this vital theme, it is also a magically Dickensian presentation. From falling snow to festoons to carols; Christmas blessings to feasts, there is much to delight any audience with tradition; although parallels are firmly drawn between the centuries as Scrooge very much refuses to heat the office because of the rising cost of fuel. There are references, too, in the “yes/no” parlour game at Fred’s house with the question “is he a growly, undomesticated, unkempt, unruly human who lives in London?” completed by Scrooge wondering “and was he recently Prime Minister?”
Gavin Fowler is a phenomenal Dickens who, alongside Beruce Khan’s Forster, writes the story in front of our eyes, bringing the characters and plot to life. They weave effortlessly in and out of scenes, taking on, amongst others, the roles of young Scrooge and young Marley – a technique which allows us to question what Dickens’ intentions for Scrooge’s original story might have been.
The Cratchit scenes are particularly poignant; Mitesh Soni is a long-suffering but brave Bob Cratchit, and Liyah Summers a formidable Jane. The children are outstanding, and when Tiny Tim (Gracie Coates in tonight’s production) sings, the magnitude of what the family are facing hits home in a truly emotional way. But it is Adrian Edmondson’s Scrooge who cements the show; he is a wild and unfeeling curmudgeon with sticking-out hair and a refusal to see the poverty all around him until it becomes personal. Edmondson’s performance is nothing short of magnificent, as we watch the character unfold, change, and adapt. The moment he realises “it’s not too late” is glorious and Edmondson gives us everything from humour to joy to pathos to anguish.
Marley (Giles Taylor) and The Christmas Ghosts deserve a special mention, managing to balance the serious nature of their roles with laugh-out-loud humour. Rebecca Lacey’s therapist-style Ghost of Christmas Past and Sunetra Sarker’s brilliant Christmas Present take us on such a ride, we miss them when they’ve gone.
The ensemble is flawless; the songs, music, dancing and the cast’s integration into multiple roles are seamless. This is the RSC at its absolute best, under the outstanding direction of Rachel Kavanaugh and the creative team, and the trickery of the set, which underpins moments of ghostly spookiness is second to none.
The Fezziwig (Clive Hayward) scene is joyous but slightly overlong, and although we are spoilt by the ghosts, more jump-scares would have been welcome, but this IS a family show, and judging by the reaction of the coachloads of children in the audience, an enormously successful one.
This is an outstanding, timely, magical production which both questions and entertains. A perfect Christmas production, and a perfect production for our time.
Reviewer: Rebecca Morris