I woke to the sight of snow on my windowsill, so perfectly even and untouched that it was as if every flake had been laid by hand. Then the cup of hot oatmeal and putting on the baggiest, fuzziest – and therefore most comfortable – lounge pants I own. What better way to prepare for a matinee performance of “A Christmas Carol”?
The ritual felt especially good for the production I wanted to see (my sixth “Carol” in 10 days, by the way): The festive live broadcast of the Old Vic with Andrew Lincoln and directed by Matthew Warchus. If you’ve been to New York on your last vacation (pre-Covid), you may have seen the same lively production at the Lyceum on Broadway, where Campbell Scott starred.
In his review last November, Ben Brantley praised the show for maintaining “the cheerfulness and sentimentality” of previous versions while bringing the story’s social awareness to the fore. This live streaming production does the same, and despite some uneven steps and distracting camera work, this “Christmas story” has all of the Christmas cheer you will need this season.
Jack Thorne, who made this nimble adaptation, adds momentum to Dickens’ stride, speeds up certain parts of the narrative, expands others, and writes the most insistent Scrooge I’ve ever met. This Ebenezer can’t play reindeer games. And did I mention the problems with dad?
Here we see Scrooge’s father – an abusive alcoholic – beating his son and forcing him into the job market to cover his own debts. It’s like “Christmas Carol” in the DC Comics universe – as dark and brooding as a sad, rich orphan who dresses up as a bat at night.
Don’t get me wrong: the changes contemporaryize the story and paint it with another layer of realism. Warchus’ purposeful direction puts a combative Scrooge and his friendly employee Bob Cratchit even more at odds. As an urchin-like Cratchit, John Dagleish seems to tremble with every disturbance.
Lincoln, who fought zombies in “The Walking Dead” for years (and the creepy guy with the billboards in “Love Actually” was – yes, actually), is remarkably charismatic in his meanest form. His Scrooge is still handsome and has a wintry beard. He has eyebrows and a mouth, frowns suspiciously or sneers. It’s enough to faint a Victorian girl.
Speaking of which, Scrooge’s love interest in childhood, Belle (a staunch Gloria Obianyo) receives more than the usual personality, baptized with a refreshing wit and a keen sensibility for economic inequality.
But neither the headstrong Belle nor his serious nephew Fred (Eugene McCoy) can rehabilitate Scrooge. In fact, even the spirits have a hard time. Scrooge challenges the trio, criticizes their methods, rejects their visions – even drives them forward because he is a very busy man who has no time for second-rate spooks. Warchus unfortunately seems to feel the same way: it takes less than 15 minutes from the beginning for Marley’s ghost to appear on stage just seconds after Bob’s exit.
The Old Vic doesn’t disappoint with its staging: lanterns hang from the ceiling and float in the darkness like stars in the night sky, and the snow falls as suddenly and quietly as in the northeast this week. (Rob Howell designed the beautiful sets and costumes.)
And yet the shooting doesn’t always do justice to the production. This is the fourth and most lavish Old Vic show to be performed and broadcast live from an empty theater. Reliance on split screens and multiple cameras, coupled here with manipulated shadows and video projections, can be confusing enough to make a Caroler dizzy.
Mostly, although there is a lot to tell in “A Christmas Carol”; Is it not true that an angel gets his wings every time a stingy capitalist is raised to a more politically advanced and generally more humane way of life in the world?
And while Thorne’s script requires some additional contortion to guide this combative skinflint through his grand transformation, it’s well worth waiting for the finale to hit.
Suddenly there is snowfall and a jubilant chorus from “Joy to the World”, a cast with handbells and a feast that literally comes down from the sky (Brussels sprouts on a parachute and a giant turkey zip lining off the balcony). Yes, it’s a lot, but it was done on purpose: a donation request to a UK food bank has been popping up on the screen for the past few minutes.
In another time I might have grinned more, maybe I felt that it was all too much. But everything this year was too much – too many gravestones and too much Scrooge-worthy behavior. So let the veggies fly and give us bells and snow and anything we can muster.
A Christmas song
Until December 24th; oldvictheatre.com