wed 07/12/2022

A Christmas Carol, RSC, Stratford review - family show eases back the terror and winds up the politics | reviews, news & interviews

A Christmas Carol, RSC, Stratford review - family show eases back the terror and winds up the politics

A Christmas Carol, RSC, Stratford review - family show eases back the terror and winds up the politics

The RSC Christmas show delivers exactly what it promises

Adrian Edmondson in 'A Christmas Carol' - 'You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?' Images - Manuel Harlan

Life is full of coincidences and contradictions. As I was walking to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was on his feet in the House of Commons delivering yet another rebalancing of individual and collective resources. On reading a couple of fine essays in the excellent programme, I saw the acknowledgement of the production’s sponsor, Pragnell.

The first item that appears on the jeweller’s website is a pair of earrings retailing at an eye-watering £71,500. Which is to say that the inequalities that fired Charles Dickens’ anger in the 1840s are still with us in the 2020s and just as intractable – a political dimension that adaptor, David Edgar, drives home a little unnecessarily in a framing device that has the author squabbling with his publisher over whether he should write a political pamphlet or a crowd-pleasing yarn. Being Dickens, he does both in his timeless tale of Yuletide revelation and redemption (and invents the familiar secular Christmas almost by accident).

Adrian Edmondson (looking uncannily like Alastair Sim in the 1951 movie) is Ebenezer Scrooge, in this version an early Victorian payday loan shark, channelling some of the rhetoric voiced 10 years ago by that strange cabal who wrote the manifesto Britannia Unchained and who seized power for a catastrophic 44 days a few weeks ago. Edmondson is very good as the misanthropic Scrooge – he’s been doing disregard for the wellbeing of others for 40 years after all, first as a member of the Dangerous Brothers and as then as Vyvyan in The Young Ones. He doesn’t quite nail the transformation to the benefactor who has seen the light, though that little ambiguity is welcome. That said his (dare I call it?) national treasure status will add to the box office and anchors the show.RSCThe ensemble cast swirl around him, many doubling and tripling roles, with Sunetra Sarkar (pictured above) enjoying herself enormously as both the Ghost of Christmas Present and Mrs Fezziwig, and Giles Taylor delving into the costume and wigs department in the roles of Jacob Marley and the aged Mr Tumbler. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has made everything look Christmas card gorgeous, but, as with so many productions of Dickens, it jars a little to see everyone (well, almost everyone) so clean and showing off the products of expensive 21st century orthodontic work.   

Director Rachel Kavanaugh keeps the pace high and finds room for a bit of song and dance but, save one glorious jump shock that had the kids out of their seats, she doesn’t quite trust her family audience. So Marley’s chains lose their weight, their palpable manifestation of the torture that awaits Scrooge if he fails to change his ways, now looking more like deluxe Christmas tinsel! Tiny Tim (Jasper Dance, excellent) looks more inconvenienced by his disability than imprisoned by it and the cathartic scene where Scrooge reads his own gravestone is finessed rather than frightening. If that’s to spare a few kids’ nightmares, it dilutes the bite of the politics which become wordy rather than visceral. I’m sure the primary school kids around me (transfixed throughout) could have handled a bit more of the horrors Dickens himself never shied away from.

Those decisions send us close to the looming spectre of sentimentality (never far away with this author) but Edmondson cannily struggles to get his words out as he sets off on his new life as a philanthropist and so bursts a bubble that hadn’t quite inflated. 

Add in splendid lighting from Tim Mitchell, some illusions from Ben Hart and strong video work from the in-house team, and it all adds up to a fine Christmas show for all the family – even if older kids might get a surprise if they read the novella and find it much darker. Rather like the hard times forecast for us all in Parliament by the man who really should know.   

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