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Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

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This production of Dickens’ beloved classic, adapted by David Edgar, breathes new life into the story in the first half, but its raucous energy slumps slightly in the second.

For the second year running, Edgar has brought A Christmas Carol to the RSC stage, and it’s clear to see why popular demand revived the production. The play is brimming with jubilance and vigour, with sleek, effortless movement through scenes and an impressively talented cast.

Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Sorrow and Joy

The play is certainly a tear-jerker, sometimes in unexpected ways. There are scenes which will likely draw out a few tears of sorrow (looking at you, Tiny Tim), but likewise, there are moments so full of exuberant, life-affirming elation that you may shed a tear of joy, too.

A scene in which the audience are invited to observe Scrooge’s time with his mentor, Mr. Fezziwig, is a prime example of such joy. The cast’s hearty singing and dancing is a testament to both their own talent and to the talent of the choreographers, and it is incredibly difficult to not crack a smile, spellbound, at the organised chaos of such an energetic and spontaneous performance.

Similarly, Aden Gillett, playing Scrooge, carries the weight of such a well-known character on strong, competent shoulders, and his transformation from lonely curmudgeon to your favourite grandparent is as believable as it is heart-wrenching. The line between campy brilliance and heartfelt moral message is expertly toed by director Rachel Kavanaugh and her team of creatives.

History and Fiction

Particularly magical is the decision to insert Charles Dickens (Joseph Timms) and his friend, John Forster (Beruce Khan), into the production, so that the audience joins them on their journey to craft the story in front of their very eyes. The presence of historical figures helps both to foreground the socio-political message of the story, and to bring the text to life on stage as they arrange and rearrange the narrative according to their views on how it should pan out.

The boundaries between history and fiction are blurred by bringing the author into the story, and the doubling of Dickens as Young Scrooge only emphasises the genius of the decision. The audience is frequently reminded of Dickens’ own experiences with hardship, poverty, and loneliness in his early childhood, and the empathy that Dickens feels for his characters is effectively contagious.

Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

A Weaker Second Half

After such a consistently strong first half, the post-intermisson ending of the play feels a little lacklustre. Following a twenty-minute interval, it doesn’t manage to pick up the momentum garnered in the first half, and as it’s much shorter, it has far less time to build momentum of its own. This produces the impression that the play peaked somewhere in the middle, which is more than a little disappointing when expectations are raised by its initial heights.

Admittedly, the scenes that slot into a second half are not, on the whole, the kind one wishes to dwell too heavily upon. The third spectre, the Ghost of Christmas Future, appears to show us the miserable reality of Scrooge’s death if he continues on his current path. Rather than visiting his own gravestone, Scrooge is shown his belongings being stolen and sold, his death celebrated, and, worst of all, the impact his absence will have on Tiny Tim’s fate.

This is a solid and impactful choice, and certainly pads out a rather short and sour visit from the ghost to an extent, but sadly it doesn’t completely distract from a fairly abrupt second half.

Political Message

The politics of the play are a little shallow, though I recognise this is the only way to inject a political message into something without making it divisive. There are few among us who can’t agree that Victorian child labour is quite bad, or that Donald Trump is incredibly unlikeable, but at no point does the production attempt a critique of modern political injustices – such ideas would inevitably be criticised by someone.

Ultimately, it reinforces the audience’s existing beliefs; things that we, as a society, can agree on. While this might make it less impactful in certain ways, the endeavour to unify the audience is certainly admirable. And this attempt to build a community with those around you, to put aside differences and celebrate our shared humanity, is at the very heart of the play.

The Miracle of Community

The necessity and joy of collaboration is echoed throughout every aspect of the play. First, in the relationship between Dickens and Forster, whose combined efforts and perspectives create something incredible when they learn how to compromise. Then, in the audience’s shared reaction to the highs and lows of the play’s emotional repertoire, a reaction in which we sigh and laugh as one.

And finally, in Scrooge’s own journey, which culminates in a pointed reminder that nobody is ever solely a giver or receiver of charity. As an elderly Scrooge falls to the ground in the final scene, set some years after the end of the book, a figure appears upstage with his crutch in hand, and helps Scrooge to his feet. The reappearance of the Now-Decidedly-Less-Tiny Tim to lift both Scrooge and the audience’s spirits is the final stitch in this tapestry of mutual support and compassion.

A Christmas Carol runs until 20th January at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Tickets can be purchased here.




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