There are double economic reasons why theatregoers this winter will rarely be far away from a version of A Christmas Carol. The reliable popularity of Dickens’ 1843 story reassures playhouse accountants jittery about blows to the box office from Covid and the cost of living crisis, while writers and directors are drawn to the enduring resonance of the lament on wealth inequality.
As a politically engaged playwright, David Edgar (Destiny, Maydays) is ideal to mine the hard stones of social campaigning Dickens hid within his seasonal treat. But with the chancellor of the exchequer playing Scrooge to reverse his predecessor’s spooking of the markets, and old Ebenezer’s dismissal of charity and compassion seemingly the template for the home secretary, Edgar’s version bites even more than at its 2017 premiere and 2018 revival. Struggling to prevent their children starving, the Cratchits feel ever less fictionally and historically distant.
The joy of the show, though, comes from the seamlessness of Edgar’s donnish sub-text – a framing device has Dickens outlining and improvising the story to his publisher – and the exuberant visual spectacle of Rachel Kavanaugh’s staging, incorporating illusions (by Ben Hart and RSC Production Video) including one transformation that achieves a gasp of joyous shock matching the sudden audience jump in The Woman in Black.
Adrian Edmondson’s Scrooge seems to be twice channelling Roald Dahl: the pre-dreams Ebenezer, inflected by the great children’s writer’s curmudgeonly and bigoted public persona, but the reformed Scrooge suggesting the twinkly eccentricity of Dahl’s Willy Wonka. In line with the script’s sharp eye on our times – Edgar names two incidental characters Mrs Snapchat and Herr Uber – Edmondson stresses more than most versions that the character is not a wretched miser but a canny entrepreneur leveraging debt for profit.
Mitesh Soni’s Bob Cratchit engagingly explores the limits of positivity against poverty, and Gavin Fowler embodies Dickens’ passion to make words work politically, and touchingly doubles Scrooge as a young man, kissing his to-be-lost love under mistletoe held by Edmondson, one of several elegant time-slips. Sunetra Sarker gives audiences a sweet Christmas Present of that ghost and assorted other roles.
The stuffing of the 2022 Christmas theatre listings with takes on the same tale risks “Bah, humbug!” from customers who have had their fill, but the RSC sets the annual standard very high with a version combining childish pleasures and grownup ideas.
At the Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 1 January.