A Christmas Carol review – Stephen Mangan leads the uniformly excellent festive offering

The Dickens classic runs until 8 January at the Old Vic

Stephen Mangan (Ebenezer Scrooge)
Stephen Mangan (Ebenezer Scrooge)
© Manuel Harlan

There are several reasons why Jack Thorne's version of the Dickens classic has been revived at the Old Vic every Christmas since 2017 (including a Broadway transfer and a Covid-necessary but still lovely online version last year). Beyond being a perennial moneyspinner for the venue and the intrigue of seeing what each new Scrooge brings to the role, from the original's Rhys Ifans to this year's incumbent Stephen Mangan, this enchanting show has become an annual festive event because it is a sublime piece of theatre.

Designer Rob Howell moves the Old Vic's stage from behind the proscenium arch into the centre of the stalls area so that the audience is on all sides of this beguiling mix of morality- and fairy-tale. Doorways emerge from the floor in every direction as though to entrap Scrooge in a cage of his own avarice, actors materialise unexpectedly like figures in a dream, the Cratchits' Christmas feast is assembled via some joyous audience interaction from all levels of the house, bells ring, snow falls… This is Total Theatre, immediate, exciting and magical.

If Stephen Mangan's tremendous Scrooge seems more contemporary at first than one might expect, he also suggests, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, the link between the young Ebenezer and the miser he becomes. In a uniformly excellent supporting cast, Rose Shalloo is heartbreaking as his departed younger sister, Oli Higginson radiates warmth and kindness as his jovial nephew, and Karen Fishwick makes something true, kind and beautiful out of Belle, the woman who captured his youthful heart but then moved on with her life.

Technically the show is flawless, from the astonishingly precise sound design by Simon Baker, where every creaking floorboard and every key turning in a rusty lock seems breathtakingly immediate, to the gorgeous, undulating lanterns spread all over the auditorium in Hugh Vanstone's magnificent lighting. Christopher Nightingale's musical score, including wonderful new arrangements of traditional carols, runs under and through the dialogue like rich gravy on a traditional Christmas dinner.

Maybe it's the after effects of the pandemic and everything we've all been through, but I don't recall any iteration of this beloved, yet still hard-hitting, story being quite this moving. I defy anybody to stay dry-eyed during much of the second half where Scrooge finally connects with his latent humanity. A thoroughly satisfying piece of theatre: take hankies, please make sure to donate to the FareShare charity on your way out… and prepare to be festively dazzled. Yet again, it's a show to savour.

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A Christmas Carol

Closed: 08 January 2022