The problem with A Christmas Carol is that it’s just too familiar and well-worn. Somehow the Dickens characters these days have become as lifeless as stewed sprouts and as exciting as last year’s presents. So how do you make them interesting again?

The answer, appropriately enough in this 200th anniversary year of the author’s birth, is triumphantly on display in the Royal Theatre’s perfect Victorian auditorium. Yet again, the Royal’s creative team has raised the bar for Christmas shows. This one is, quite simply, sensational.

If you thought you knew every last nuance of the story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to revelation and renewal, then now’s the time to think again. With a combination of stunning design, breathtaking effects, seamless direction and – above all – real heart, this production of Neil Duffield’s intelligent adaptation brings Dickens fantastically to life.

From the opening sequence of carol-singers weaving through London fog against a murmuring, slightly menacing soundscape (Tom Kelly), director Gary Sefton strikes exactly the right balance of dark and light. This highwire act, treading between workhouse grimness and Christmas jollity, is judiciously reproduced in every aspect of the production, but nowhere more so than Michael Taylor’s extraordinary set. Vast, mobile towers comprised of leather-bound volumes, trunks and pieces of heavy furniture create a ramshackle arena that’s variously cramped and threatening (for Scrooge’s office) or open and warm (for Fezziwig’s party), with all shades of versatility in between.

The cast of seven, augmented by some thoroughly drilled youngsters from the local community, make full use of this wonderful environment to explore a story that seems, in spite of every classic retelling from Alistair Sim to the Muppets, to be as fresh-minted as the Christmas Eve snow which falls – yes, literally – in the theatre.

Sam Graham’s Scrooge appears to channel Victor Meldrew, while giving him a three-dimensional depth that is often lost in less thoughtful performances. But he’s far from alone. All the actors, playing multiple roles, deliver superbly, creating a world that is peopled by Dickens’s vivid creations, sometimes grotesque, sometimes gut-wrenching. Watch out in particular for Greg Haiste’s hilarious Mrs Fezziwig and Andy Williams as, among others, Jacob Marley and the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Superlatives are frequently overused in reviews, and five-star recommendations scattered about all too readily. In this instance, they are unreservedly deserved, together with the spontaneous standing ovation this show will unquestionably garner night after night. It is everything theatre is supposed to be: thought-provoking, inspiring, heart-warming and, ultimately, life-affirming. Miss it at your peril.

MICHAEL DAVIES

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