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Review: A Christmas Carol (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Phil Davis stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in David Edgar's new adaptation of Dickens' classic festive tale

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Incredibly, it's the best part of 40 years since David Edgar adapted Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC, to enormous critical and popular acclaim. Now, the same adaptor tackles the same novelist's work for the same company once again, and the result is a festive delight.

It may not have the epic scale of Nickleby's eight and a half hours, nor the thronging cast of extraordinary characters, but Edgar's adaptation lacks none of the textural depth and emotional resonance of Dickens' original piece of social commentary. And along the way, he grasps the opportunity to score a multitude of powerful political points at the expense of everyone from Brexiteers to Boris Johnson.

There are striking similarities with the current cinema release The Man Who Invented Christmas, which traces Dickens' own development – in record time – of A Christmas Carol in time for the seasonal bookselling market of 1843. Edgar uses Dickens himself as a framing device, interweaving the author's intense desire to educate and unsettle his readers into the dramatic structure, and it's a device that broadly enhances the narrative, expanding and explaining the motives and giving them added emphasis.

But this is far from simply a leftie lunge at the establishment wrapped up in Christmas paper: this is proper theatre, delivered with all the resources that the RSC has at its disposal.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh takes Edgar's intelligent, urgent raw material and uses it to create a visual feast of evocative images, peopled with clearly drawn, fully rounded characters who tell the timeless story of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to redemption with wit, passion and an abundance of enthusiasm.

The images are helped along by Stephen Brimson Lewis' grimy Victorian designs and Tim Mitchell's subtle lighting, while illusions by Ben Hart and some nicely authentic music from Catherine Jayes, all add to the flavour of the story which, above all others, gave us our modern notion of what Christmas is all about.

Phil Davis plays Scrooge as a rather passive protagonist, soaking up the lessons offered by the three Christmas spirits and transforming quietly but movingly into the new, generous Ebenezer. There are moments when he looks slightly ill at ease as if he's not quite fully settled on his characterisation, but there's clearly a convincing and empathetic Scrooge in there ready to emerge as the run unfolds.

Among the supporting cast, Gerard Carey is particularly effective as Bob Cratchit, while Nicholas Bishop and Beruce Khan work as an engaging double act in the roles of Dickens and his editor John Forster, variously intervening, narrating and offering commentary as the tale proceeds to its joyful conclusion.

The whole ensemble have a ball with their multiple roles and the overriding effect is entertaining, lively and full of fun. As a vibrant offering to carry the company through the festive season, this is a Christmas Carol appropriate for these hard times.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 4 February 2018.