Lurking beneath the festive jollity, the RSC’s version of the Dickens classic is a reminder of grim present realities, says GORDON PARSONS
A Christmas Carol The Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon 5/5
WITH the latest estimation that over 3.5 million children in Britain are living in poverty, Charles Dickens’s famous Christmas ghost story is a telling choice for the RSC’s seasonal show.
David Edgar’s sharply tweaked adaptation doesn’t need to labour contemporary parallels.
In it, Nicholas Bishop’s incensed Dickens, formerly a parliamentary correspondent, is preparing to produce a pamphlet responding to the horrifying details in an 1843 government report on the conditions of child labour in mines and factories.
His friend and biographer John Foster urges him to write one of his Christmas tales with his characteristic play on “Emotion! Tears and laughter!” The author finally agrees, “as long as its subject is oppression, misery and want.”
But while keeping us aware that this is about the sufferings at large in the world, Edgar and director Rachel Kavanaugh provide all of Dickens’s humour, festive jollity, comic characters and, of course, a happy ending.
If Fezziwig’s ball explodes with communal delight, Bob Crachit’s family enthusing over their meagre goose dinner reminds us of the reality for so many. There are not many dry eyes when, convulsed with an ominous cough, Jude Muir’s Tiny Tim’s song is completed by his brother and sisters, with Edgar readily underscoring the emotional charge provided by Dickens.
Phil Davis’s crabby Scrooge gives just that hint of enjoying his meanness which, through his ghostly education, credibly turns into childlike, self-satisfying benevolence.
The three Christmas spirits — the melancholic Past, like Miss Haversham wandering in from Great Expectations, Present, resembling some overweight cornucopian mother figure and Future, a Victorian funeral mute – conduct Scrooge through his life, leaving him desperate to know whether it is too late to change.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis recreates the evocative world of the famous Boz illustrations, while Catherine Jayes’s music and the full technical resources of the RSC mirror Dickens’s creative imagination.
Our present-day Cabinet, obsessed by the ghost of future Brexit, should take a break from their self-inflicted shambles and pay a visit to this salutary reminder of the Tiny Tims of today.