The Daily Telegraph
Mangan is a Scrooge with daddy issues in this entertaining revival
A Christmas Carol Old Vic, London SE1
It can certainly be said of the Old Vic that they know how to do Christmas. Matthew Warchus’s Dickensian charmer, returning for a fifth year, is an immersive treat from the off: audience members are handed mince pies and satsumas, and entertained by an accordion-led band, while Victorian top-hatted actors do a merry jig. But this socially conscious show ensures you eat your vegetables, too. Thankfully, it has the nous to introduce its Brussels sprouts from the ceiling on mini parachutes (in a joyful feast scene), and its lectures to transporting music.
Rather like Doctor Who, the production’s lead constantly regenerates. It began in 2017 with Rhys Ifans as Scrooge, succeeded by Stephen Tompkinson, Paterson Joseph and Andrew Lincoln. The latest incarnation is Stephen Mangan, who looks the part with his shock of white hair and stooped form in a threadbare dressing gown. However, he’s more grumpy than truly intimidating. When told that he will be visited by three spirits, he wryly mutters: “I’d rather not be.” Yet Mangan stresses that Scrooge sees himself as a realist. He believes in his world view and is determined not to learn any lessons, or accept responsibility. He’s like a corrupt CEO trying to wriggle out of liability.
It means the journey to redemption is shortened – this Scrooge isn’t monstrous, just misguided – but fits well enough with Jack Thorne’s tender-hearted adaptation. As with the current vogue for Hollywood films depicting villains’ tragic origin stories, Thorne’s Scrooge is shaped by childhood trauma. Yes, this miser has daddy issues, namely an abusive, drunken, debt-ridden father who yanks him out of school to earn money. Before Scrooge can save Tiny Tim, he must first heal his own inner child.
It gives Dickens’s tale an effective psychological framework and interestingly complicates the happy ending. Redemption has still to be earned, and Scrooge’s realisation is, in one respect, tragically too late: he’s missed the chance to have a family. The most poignant moment comes when he tracks down former sweetheart Belle (an excellent Karen Fishwick) and
reflects on what might have been.
The trade-off is fewer supernatural chills. Jacob Marley makes a terrifying entrance, dragging his endless chain down the catwalk-style stage. However, the subsequent ghosts are more eccentric therapists nudging Scrooge towards his breakthrough. Warchus does create some spinetingling moments, though, with the striking of the hour and a wildly swinging lantern, and by cloaking the final spirit so that we can imagine the worst.
Designer Rob Howell (who last year won two of the show’s five Tony Awards) also supplies a clever visual motif: giant frames represent both the doors that Scrooge shuts against the world and the prison he has created for himself. But most affecting is the use of the music. The assured ensemble, who also narrate and play multiple roles, accompany the drama with carols, exquisitely arranged by Christopher Nightingale. “See, amid the Winter’s Snow” begins a cappella with performers dotted around the theatre and builds into joyful affirmation.
That sense of the collective is key to this production. Mangan’s giddy euphoria during the climactic feast is matched by the audience members who get to help build it – to be part of live theatre’s magic. The blunt charitable pleas occasionally break that spell, but then this past year has made us all aware of the fragility of life and the virtue of benevolence. God bless us, every one.
Jacob Marley makes a terrifying entrance, dragging his endless chain down the stage