Over the past three years, the Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol has become as much an integral part of the festive season as tinsel, turkey and all the trimmings. But, as the theatre world knows to its considerable cost, this is a Christmas like no other.
Challenging times call for new approaches. And so in place of its usual rollicking staged version, the Vic has added Jack Thorne’s sprightly, politically acute adaptation to its In Camera season, streaming it live across the globe direct from the stage of an empty auditorium.
Thorne has ploughed the layered complexities of Dickens’s familiar, beautifully crafted clash of greed with goodness, delivering it as a parable for the sad, needy times in which we are now living.
A dazzling combination of high tech and theatrical jiggery pokery has been employed to move the production into the brave new two-dimensional world of digital performance. The success of the medium is mixed, with the multiple pieces of the jigsaw occasionally missing vital logistical and emotional beats through its split screens and multiple, flat imagery. The ghostly hauntings visited upon Lincoln’s embittered miser are beautifully costumed and choreographed but lack the spine chilling shiver emanating from an on-stage physical presence.
Director Matthew Warchus has eschewed the standard image of an elderly, doddery Scrooge in nightcap and gown, instead casting an actor capable of delivering a dangerously hard edge to the central role. This year he has chosen Andrew Lincoln to follow in the footsteps of Rhys Ifans, Stephen Tomkinson and Paterson Joseph. In a coruscating performance, Lincoln adopts a cold-eyed, steely facade to conceal the underlying pain of the damaged boy who, in his adult life, repeatedly chose money over love, only to pay the price in his twilight years.
Against a plangent litany of traditional carols and handbell ringing, some fine individual performances unfold, most notably Clive Rowe’s warm-hearted Fezziwig, whose offer of employment is rejected in favour of more lucrative opportunities; John Dagleish’s loyal but spurned Bob Cratchit; and Gloria Obianyo’s calm, intelligent Belle, the woman whom, all too late, Scrooge realises he should have married.
The slightly irritating technical glitches are augmented by the premature intervention of a printed on-screen appeal for donations to FoodCycle, the charity which provides weekly meals to individuals and communities and whose take-away services are increasingly required to combat financial hardship, isolation and homelessness.
The appeal, however, serves as a real life reminder of the subtext of Thorne’s high energy adaptation. Proceedings end with gusto, as a joyous ensemble of song, dance and bell ringing preface Scrooge’s generous, rheumy-eyed rebirth and Tiny Tim’s devout wishes for a merry Christmas for all. At which point, this evergreen tale works its perennial magic, even in a new 21st century medium and against a backdrop of the poverty and hunger invading communities outside the theatre.
A Christmas Carol is streamed live from 12 to 24 December 2020.
Bookings on: http://www.oldvictheatre.com