Charles Dickens’s marvellous tale of redemption bursts upon the stage in the RSC’s latest retelling of the Christmas favourite.
It is a version that stays true to the original story, while mixing songs and dance, a huge cast, and an undertow of gritty realism. For, as the play reminds us through the speeches of Dickens (Gavin Fowler) himself, he too knew something of the absolute poverty which forms the backdrop of his story.
But while it is there all the time, the harsh side of Victorian London never overwhelms the sentimental side of the story. For Dickens believed that the way to change society for the better was to change the way people felt towards each other. The lesson Scrooge (Adrian Edmonson) learns is the importance of connection. The old Scrooge, who we see at the start of the play, full of meanness and incivility, himself suffered as a lonely, abandoned child, deprived of love. No wonder he turned into the curmudgeonly miser, rich in everything but compassion and self-knowledge. He too, like millions of others, was an abused child. The depth of feeling inherent in the play and the character shines throughout this superb full-on production.
The star of the play and the show is, of course, Scrooge himself. Adrian Edmonson plays him straight. At the start of the play he channels something of the bitter nihilism of his famous TV creation, Vyvyan, in The Young Ones. But that persona gradually gives way to a richer, deeper characterisation, as he is given a dose of reality by the ghost of his old partner in legalised extortion, Jacob Marley (Giles Taylor) and the ghosts of Christmas Past (Rebecca Lacey), Present (Sunetra Sarker), and Future (Aashirya Budathoki). Each of these has a unique character, the Past a kind of therapist who repeatedly asks Scrooge how he feels when confronted with his unhappy childhood, the Present as a marvellous concoction of verdant greenery and fizzing energy, and the Future a solitary silent child.
Though this is a ghost story it is never really scary. Rather it is a warning – we thrive only as long as we care for each other. Children are at the heart of this, and they form a large part of the show, never as extras but key to the story and the production. Tiny Tim (Gracie Coates), Want (Bel Avi), Ignorance (Aiden Cole) and the young Scrooge himself (Aiden Cole) and many others perform with as much professionalism and channelled emotion as their adult peers. The set, of course, is magnificent. The backdrop of a Victorian slum looms large over the stage, and a huge screen carries projections of other realms, while rafters and chandeliers descend from the roof.
Parallels with our own times are not too far-fetched. We don’t generally have the absolute want that was common in Dickens’s time and on which the British Empire was partly built. Children are not forced to work in inhumane conditions which often killed them. We know more, have more opportunities. But do we have more feeling for each other? Is it enough? You’ll leave this show thrilled, moved, and amazed, and maybe a little wiser and kinder, as Dickens intended.
A Christmas Carol runs until January 1. Visit rsc.org.uk or call 01789 331111 to book.