It will probably come as no surprise when I say that Christopher Eccleston makes an excellent Scrooge. But it’s not for the reason you might think. Yes, he captures the surliness and pain of Dickens’ great miser with ease, but it’s towards the latter stages when he’s enraptured by the possibility of change that Eccleston really shines.
As he darts about the stage imploring us to help load up hampers of food to take to the Cratchitt residence, he exudes childish glee. When he exclaims he feels “light as a feather”, you believe him; the glow on his face could roast a chestnut. It turns out that Eccleston, whose career has been built on hard characters with jagged edges (Doctor Who aside), is the very epitome of Christmas cheer.
Now in its seventh year, Matthew Warchus’s production of A Christmas Carol has become a festive fixture. But for me, this marks my first look at it, and what impressed me most is the way Warchus and adaptor Jack Thorne have blown the dust off a story that has become canonised to the point of strangulation.
The stage is effectively a catwalk that dissects the Old Vic in two, with the audience seated all around. It’s an arrangement that complements the stripped-back production. Rob Howell’s set consists of a few door frames and boxes that are neatly housed in the stage itself and a collection of lanterns hangs overhead to really put us in a Dickensian mood.
The ghosts themselves, a chain-dragging Marley aside, are shorn of their usual fear factor, recast instead as softly-spoken women. They’re not painted as spectres or ghouls, but as guides, gently nudging Scrooge towards the light as they tend to an antique doll’s pram. Alongside poor clerk Bob Cratchit and his sickly son Tiny Tim, it’s Scrooge’s young love Belle who truly holds the key to his damascene conversion.
Eccleston, who really does feel born to play the central role, is ably supported by an ensemble that features several returning cast members. Rob Compton’s kindly Bob and a rotating cast of talented young Tims ensure the Cratchit clan exudes goodness, while Frances McNamee’s Belle shows the inner steel to tell some hard truths.
Scrooge’s own family also get inflated roles in the story, with his alcoholic, grasping father (Andrew Langtree, neatly doubling as Marley) and beloved sister Fan (Rose Shalloo) adding backstory to his obsession with money. And Samuel Townsend’s Fred does a good line in comic bemusement at his uncle’s transformation.
To top it off, alongside the mince pies and oranges, composer/arranger Christopher Nightingale serves up a range of ethereal carols beautifully performed by the box-seated band and cast, who end proceedings with a breathtaking bell ringing “Silent Night”. And amid the Cost of Living crisis, there’s a welcome charity collection for City Harvest London on the way out, a reminder of the continuing relevance of Dickens’ clarion call for compassion.