Review: A Christmas Carol (Bristol Old Vic)

The Bristol Old Vic’s take on Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas story returns to the theatre

Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
Felix Hayes as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
© Geraint Lewis

Christmas is a time for A Christmas Carol. All over the country there are hundreds of productions being staged as I write. It's the perennial festive stagey treat that we all know in one form or another. The difficulty, then, is how does a director make it as fresh and as exciting as if we were watching it for the very first time?

This adaptation from Tom Morris, with direction from Lee Lyford, does exceptionally well to re-invent and renew the old story. Dickens' classic is as haunting and heart-catching as they come and by the end of this Christmas Carol you will be welling up with festive cheer. It's a joyful, exuberant experience, with an appropriately Bristolian steam-punk aesthetic, shot through with song, spooky hauntings and sad goings on.

Here, music is vital to proceedings and Gwyneth Herbert's music is a lovely, a-tonal mix of minor chords that are a little reminiscent of those heard in the Old Vic's recent The Grinning Man. And though the songs are not exactly ear worms, they are absolutely beautiful, including a love song sung by Crystal Condie as Scrooge's one-time love interest and Harry Bird as her partner.

Morris does well to keep Dickens' text threaded through the piece but also updates things a little, getting the ensemble cast to talk out to the audience at regular moments. In fact, there are more than a few nice audience interactions – all of which echo panto forms – which means this Christmas Carol properly gets the crowd on board. Tiny Tim is played by a young viewer, while the child Ebenezer – seen on the journey with the ghost of Christmas past – is another audience member plucked from the stalls.

Scrooge is played by the towering, bald-headed Felix Hayes and he is absolutely brilliant. His distinctive voice, his stooped shoulders, hang dog expression and scowl make him a hardened, angry Ebenezer. But his transformation is complete and convincing and the tears in his eyes at the end make us really feel for the man who had lost all joy and love but manages to dig deep within himself to find them again.

And the ebullient ending, in which Tom Rogers' designs transform the stark dark greys and black of scaffolding to bursts of pinks, yellows and blues, is a lesson in how to enjoy life and be merry. Dickens' story has an enduring message for a reason: empathy, generosity and love for other people are the cornerstones to a happy existence. And so we are reminded here. A very merry extravaganza that will get you slap-bang in the festive mood.