They come in threes, I suppose. Ghosts, of course, but also adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – this slick and often ingenious Old Vic production at the Comedy, Victorian Opera’s musical version next month at the Palais, and – perhaps best of all – the Muppets Christmas Carol, performed with a live orchestra at Hamer Hall. Haunted by Christmas spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge haunts us in turn, a warning and symbol of redemption.
Dickens didn’t invent Christmas as we know it now – with its holly and puddings, turkey and stuffing, peace and love and goodwill to all etc – but his 1843 novella certainly cemented certain traditions in the minds of Victorians. They were picked up and embraced around the world, and eventually exploited by commercial interests, which complicates and sours somewhat the message the book is trying to encourage. Bah humbugging the festive season can seem these days like a sane reaction to crass materialism, rather than the moral failing of the middle classes Dickens had in mind.
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Perhaps this is why playwright Jack Thorne and director Matthew Warchus (the former of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame, the latter the director of Matilda the Musical) tinker with the central character’s psychology and backstory, emphasising motivations only hinted at in the novella. Scrooge is still “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone”, mean and avaricious, but as written here and played by David Wenham, he is quite clearly a man traumatised and emotionally broken.
Thorne has Scrooge cowed by a cold, alcoholic father (Anthony Harkin). His breakup with a former love, Belle (Sarah Morrison), is cast in a more sympathetic light, no longer a matter of simple greed on his part, but coming from a more complex desire to show her, and by extension himself, a better life. There are shades of Dickens’ own biography etched into this new portrait, and the result is more psychologically nuanced, less parabolic.
This leaning into naturalism has some drawbacks, but there are compensations too. What we miss, what the production deliberately turns away from, is the whimsy and magic, the expansive imaginative playfulness of the novella. The ghosts are miles away from Dickens’ vision, more prosaic and localised, less spectral and symbolic. What we gain, though, is a Scrooge of real depth and pathos, a man who genuinely wrestles with spiritual adversity rather than the cypher waiting for his moral lesson.
Wenham is superb, even mesmerising. He has that ability to hold the audience’s attention, rapt, without effort or strain; we find ourselves leaning in to catch every word and gesture. He makes Scrooge’s splenetic carapace read more like a protective armour than a sign of inherent irascibility, and his transformation into twinkling-eyed benevolence is touching and true. It’s a performance of such precision and heart, finely attuned to the sensibilities of the work so that even the sentimentality feels earned. Funny and deeply moving, Wenham’s Scrooge is one for the ages.
The rest of the cast don’t really have a hope of matching him, but a number of actors shine in less demanding roles. Bernard Curry is lovely as the subjugated Bob Cratchit, and Andrew Coshan is suitably buoyant and red-cheeked as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Morrison makes a plaintive and resilient Belle, a character who knows too well the falling off that comes when hope hardens into disappointment. As the spirits of Christmas, Debra Lawrance, Samantha Morley and Emily Nkomo are stymied by Thorne’s quotidian approach – they are less individuated, and altogether less wondrous, than Dickens’ version.
There is theatrical magic at work here, though. Rob Howell’s set and costume design is marvellous, richly evocative of London winters and coal-lit hearths. The two motifs of bells and lanterns, symbols of spiritual purity and epiphany respectively, are brilliantly employed; both Christopher Nightingale’s compositions and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting make full and impressive use of them throughout. Overall, the design seems heavily inspired by Thorne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with its long cloaks and sparkling wands that throw light around the stage. If this makes it slightly derivative, it’s also highly effective.
In Dickens’ own time and since, debate has raged about A Christmas Carol. Is it primarily a work of social activism, secular and political? Or is it rather an exercise in Christian allegory, the three ghosts a representation of the Holy Trinity, Scrooge’s transfiguration an echo of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus? By adding a series of beautifully performed Christmas carols to their production, Thorne and Warchus tilt the work towards the latter, but they are wise enough to avoid simplistic moralising and overt displays of religiosity. This is a night of pure theatrical warmth, ritualistic and communal, with a performance of incredible clarity and generosity at its centre. Like Christmas itself, bloody hard to resist.
A Christmas Carol is on at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until 29 December