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Review: A Christmas Carol (Arts Theatre)

Simon Callow returns to London with his adaptation of Charles Dickens' Christmas novel

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

His own squalid boyhood experience of child labour left Charles Dickens acutely conscious of the evils suffered by children living in poverty, and working in dire conditions. While writing A Christmas Carol, which he had already decided would deliver a 'sledgehammer blow' to a complacent society, he walked miles through London at night, seeing for himself the havoc caused by ignorance and want – personified by the two half-starved children that Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Christmas Present.

In this welcome revival, Simon Callow once again presents A Christmas Carol as a single, meaty monologue, in an interval-free, 90-minute show. It's intimate, scary and passionate, and all the more impressive for Callow's restrained and thoughtful storytelling.

His characterisations are superbly drawn, with Scrooge's sour-faced scorn slowly replaced by wonder and dismay at the sight of lost loves and missed opportunities, revealed to him by the Spirits. Expect tears. Even if you hold firm while Tiny Tim blesses the family over their meagre Christmas dinner, you will surely crack as Mrs Cratchit mourns the loss of her child in the vision from Christmas Yet To Come.

As well as grumpiness and gloom, there's also plenty of laughter and good humour which, as Dickens points out, is irresistibly contagious. Callow is a nimble dancer, and manages to create a room packed full of party-loving Fezziwigs, as well as a hearty, fun-filled Christmas at nephew Fred's house.

He relies – like all good actors – on his text, and there are very few bells and whistles in terms of the set to help him. But he really doesn't need much. Director Tom Cairns is also the designer, and together with lighting designer Adam Povey's ingenious use of light and projection, an apparently simple set-up brings the eerie and otherworldly heart of the story to life, with shadowy visions of London at night, and a clock that looms from the darkness as a solemn reminder that time is running out for us all.

Dismissing sniffy contemporary critics, Thackeray described the book as ‘a national benefit', and in this stirring revivial, Simon Callow conveys all the benefit, and the redemptive power, of Dickens' humanity.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Arts Theatre until 7 January.

Click here for our Christmas and Pantomime guide