A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic theatre review: Rhys Ifans and playwright Jack Thorne manage to breathe new life into this staid old text

 
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
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A Christmas Carol
4.0

In the 164 years since its publication, the tale of miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge and his journey with the spirits has become a Christmas fable with all the bite of a stale mince pie.

We know the big beats and lines far too well – the bah-humbugs and tearful pleas, the rattling chains and tables groaning with festive plenty. What a pleasure, then, to find in Jack Thorne’s new version a retelling that’s happy to rip those cherished memories apart, introducing a shrewder, more sceptical Scrooge who is unwilling to be led so tamely towards salvation. And what a shame that this powerfully unsentimental Old Vic production tips over ungracefully into panto-land towards its finale.

Brilliantly played by a lean and dishevelled Rhys Ifans, the new Scrooge is a damaged yet tenacious reprobate who often acts like he’s read his own story in advance. This is a man who is both proud of his work as a money-lender and resentful of being manipulated, a mixture the script traces to an abusive father and the horror of seeing loved ones fall under the shadow of poverty.

The atmosphere isn’t that of a grudging conversion, but of a blackly humorous duel with one’s own better nature, and the pay-off is that Scrooge’s eventual repentance feels more heartfelt than you’d expect. “You have not left a mark,” he bellows at the back of one retreating spectre, hugging his book of debts to his chest as darkness falls.

Robert Howells’ tapering arena layout, eerily lit from above by dangling lamps and book-ended by rising door frames, gives Ifans ample opportunity to vent his spleen among the audience. Next to the excess of many Christmas shows, this one is almost Beckettian in its sparseness.

Much is achieved with simple props – a lantern smashed to bring a vision to a close, or cash-boxes stacked to make chairs and desks. Ifans’s captivating portrayal aside, Myra McFadyen and Golda Rosheuvel are refreshingly brutal as the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present respectively, while Erin Doherty is amusingly sardonic as Scrooge’s lost love Belle.

Sadly, the play leans into Scrooge’s rebirth as the model of Christmas cheer a little too sharply, dousing the audience in fake snow and plastic Brussel sprouts in what might have been a scene from a different play. Ifans is a joy to watch throughout, however, and the first four chapters are worth the slight feeling of whiplash. This is a terrific revival, as lustrous and spiky as a sprig of fresh holly.

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