Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
1st December 2022
Adaptor Jack Thorne, quite rightly, impresses upon us that this is a ghost story. It’s an emotional evening owing something to the fact that Dickens wrote the novella right here in Southwark. I wondered whether, as with Emma Rice’s Wise Children, we might even have a scene set in the Old Vic.
Oliver Teale as Scrooge. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
But despite a lavish budget there is a slight lack of oomph perhaps because this is the sixth outing of the show. Thorne is a poetic writer and the piece frequently takes flight, particularly when we reflect on the heightened relevance of an economic situation that is as bleak as any since Dickens sent the manuscript to his publisher in 1843. When simple explanatory narrative is needed, Thorne (wisely) sticks to large chunks of verbatim Dickens.
Many families in an austerity UK under Rishi Sunak will experience the privations depicted here, and I winced when Jenny Fitzpatrick as Ghost of Christmas Present took Scrooge to an abundant market in which prosperous Londoners were buying ingredients for their Christmas dinner. How many families will pay for a decent Christmas on credit and struggle to pay for this come the New Year in the manner of Dickens’ spendthrift father who was imprisoned for debt. At a more flippant level, it’s worth noting that even if you are affluent, many standard Christmas foodstuffs are going to be unavailable for us.
The occasional shortfalls of energy are I believe due to Tony Award-winning actor Owen Teale (Game of Thrones) who occasionally runs out of ideas as Ebenezer Scrooge. The press night audience may have caught Teale on a flat evening, and I sense from undertones of spontaneity in the dialogue and stage business that each performance will have a direction and inventive nature of its own. Teale has his finest moments and becomes compelling when Scrooge resolves to change his ways.
Julie Jupp as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Teale may be a huge name but director Matthew Warchus has ensured that this is a group effort, and he has lavished detail on every cast member right down to the extras who constantly surprise us with witty touches. It would be easy to be unsubtle in skewing the story to fit a propagandist position given the current political and economic climate. Warchus however lets the inherent contemporary impact of the plot creep up on us.
Chris Nightingale’s score (also Tony Award-winning when the production played at the Lyceum Theatre, New York in 2019) has three of the carols (notably Silent Night) performed instrumentally on hand bells. It will be some time before I forget the magic of the intricate descending scales. The music is full of lush notes and is often flamboyant though it always makes sense with the thrust of the narrative.
Rob Howell’s set absorbed me for much of proceedings as I took in details such as Brussels sprouts dangling from parachutes and turkeys suspended from the rafters, the former a little nausea-inducing. Howell is also responsible for costume design which mirrors the caricatured etchings by John Leech that originally illustrated the novel. I was struck by Scrooge’s tattered rag that is a dressing gown. Lighting (predominantly ceiling-mounted lanterns) by Hugh Vanstone injects a dreamlike quality into proceedings that emphasizes the notion of Scrooge’s fevered imagination.
This is by no means cosy and of course it should not be. Julie Jupp with her pram as the Ghost of Christmas Past is truly creepy, as is the clanking presence of Sebastien Torkia playing Marley’s ghost. It’s a robust, timeless narrative about privation, human solidarity and acquiring empathy. This is didactic without being hectoring, affecting without being too saccharine.
Am I excessively pessimistic in thinking that with one of the spirits being of Christmas Yet to Come, there may be tougher times ahead both for the arts sector and in terms of sustaining Christmas cheer over the next few years?