This Christmas, whatever the weather, it will be snowing “Bah! Humbug!”s, with cobwebby ghosts of Jacob Marley queuing up to shake their spooky chains at audiences. Because in the next few weeks, productions of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s beloved festive storyabout the transformational power of empathy, will easily rival seasonal pantomimes in number.
Last year the listings magazine Time Out complained there were at least four versions playing in the capital’s theatres, although in a previous year there were seven. This time we are surely at “peak Ebenezer”, with nine prominent stage versions to choose from in London alone.
They include a new Dolly Parton-branded musical set in the Smoky mountains and an adult-rated show called Another F*****g Christmas Carol. Also coming soon is a Netflix animation with a starry voice cast – including Luke Evans, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley – that features reimagined songs from the 1970 Leslie Bricusse-composed musical Scrooge.
For those theatres banking on drawing in families for a live show, such a well-known tale clearly offers the hope of balancing the books in hard times. But an equally critical reckoning will be the emerging consensus on who is the season’s best Scrooge.
Will the victor’s nightcap go to a big star in a successful returning production, such as Simon Russell Beale at the Bridge theatre in south-east London, Adrian Edmondson at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, or Owen Teale at London’s Old Vic?
Or perhaps it will go to a relative unknown at a smaller venue, such as the Peckham theatre in south-east London, where a new musical, Scroogelicious, opensin December.
Any actor who can snarl convincingly through the line: “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry” stands a chance. At the Rose theatre in Kingston, south-west London, a woman, Penny Layden, will play the role.
Speaking before a dress rehearsal on Friday, Teale said he’s focusing on keeping his Scrooge “honest”. The character has loomed large for Teale since he first read the story as child in Wales: “Scrooge is such a closed person, hating the world before it hates him and ready for a fight.”
The part, he added, is surprisingly tough to play, since he needs to be the grumpy centre of a full Mr Fezziwig-style display of whirling fun. “I have a whole cast around me doing a Christmas show and I am being the anti-matter, the heckler.”
For audiences, all these shows mean a chance to revisit a story that still chimes loudly, and to see whether, as many suspect, it will have a more chilling resonance in the winter of 2022.
Taking one spectral visitation at a time, a trip with the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals just how this book has towered over Dickens’s other seasonal efforts for almost 180 years. In fact, it had sold out by Christmas Eve just days after it was first published in December 1843. In the 20th century we then had memorable screen Ebenezers, from Alastair Sim and a singing Albert Finney to Bill Murray in Scrooged and Michael Caine appearing with the Muppets.
Of late, things have taken a more serious turn, with a darkly faithful 3D animation voiced by Jim Carrey in 2009 and a shadowy BBC adaptation in 2019 from Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight starring Guy Pearce.
Newer stage versions have come from writer Patrick Barlow, who cast Jim Broadbent as his Scrooge, from Mark Gatiss last year and from Jack Thorne at London’s Old Vic. Each attempted to sound more of the original notes of a familiar tune.
Thorne’s hit version, which has starred Rhys Ifans, followed by Stephen Tompkinson, Paterson Joseph, Andrew Lincoln and Stephen Mangan, is back this year with Teale in the role.
So with a cornucopia of shows to select from, what is hidden beneath the fur-trimmed cloak of such a vision of plenty? The Ghost of Christmas Present points grimly to the pertinence of the plot. The biting truth is that Dickens’s twin starving children, Ignorance and Want, are in stark evidence this year. According to Rachel Kavanaugh, who is directing Edmondson in a revival of the acclaimed David Edgar adaptation at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, there are two key elements to the story’s enduring attraction.
“First, it is about redemption,” she said. “Someone gets to see the world with new eyes, and that is very appealing. And second, it is a ghost story. But it has added political resonance this year. When I was first involved with this version five years ago there were food banks – now it is dramatically worse.”
A central theme of Edgar’s script is that actions matter more than words. His Ghost of Christmas Present makes the argument that finding the best use for individual talent is the real test of personal morality. “That seems very relevant now,” said Kavanaugh.
Praising Edmondson’s Scrooge last week, the Guardian critic Mark Lawson suggested there are good reasons “why theatregoers this winter will rarely be far away from a version of A Christmas Carol”. The necessity of filling seats is one, but another is the economic argument at its heart. Over at the Old Vic, Teale needs no nudges to spot this. “We are starting to tumble down now. Most of the people I am working with already can’t afford to buy a snack lunch every day,” he said.
Appropriately, the theatre (which has no state subsidy) will be making bucket collections at the end of each performance to raise money in aid of the food redistribution charity City Harvest. “Jack [Thorne] has accomplished a tremendous amount with this story, without making it ironic. It exposes all the people who should be exposed, as well as the kind of thinking that says if some people can just earn a lot of money, then we will all be all right,” said Teale.
Faced finally with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the Telegraph’s critic wondered last week about the future of this “surplus” of stage Scrooges. “Next year,” Dominic Cavendish wrote, “I do hope main-house programming will look less tried-and-tested – but that’s as much a comment on the state we’re in as a criticism of this crowd-pleasing, thought-provoking revenant.”
And if we never truly leave Dickens’s ghost story behind us, producers can be relied upon to continually refresh it, as Beth Flintoff is doing at Reading Rep theatre, where her 2021 sellout production, set at a local biscuit factory cowering under Scrooge’s reign of terror, returns at the end of November. After all, as Scrooge’s mistreated former love Belle tells him in the Old Vic’s production, it is the human capacity for change that makes life so thrilling.
• This article was amended on 15 November 2022. An earlier version erred in saying that “some of the show’s profits” would go to the charity City Harvest; in fact the Old Vic is raising funds in aid of City Harvest through collections at the theatre after each performance and via text/online.