A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Adapted by David Edgar, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon, Audio Described Performance, 26 November 2022, 5***** David Gray & Paul Gray

If the Victorians invented our modern Christmas, then it was Charles Dickens who captured and codified it into the set of classic images we now associate with this time of year: snow, carol singers, cherubic children, chestnuts roasting, bowers of holly, and kissing under the mistletoe. Certainly, David Edgar’s adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gives us all of that. But this is not just a trip into nostalgic fantasy. Nor is it a simple retelling of the story.

The play opens on an eerily bare stage; the story has yet to be written. It’s Christmas, but Dickens, played with a fiery compassion by Gavin Fowler, wants to write a political pamphlet to highlight the plight of impoverished children. His editor and friend, John Forster, played by Beruce Khan, wants him to write something more commercial and festive. He is persuaded to compromise and create a story that does both. As he begins to imagine the story, it takes shape on the stage around him.

This seems to be a clever framing device that puts the political at the heart of the play from the very outset, but in fact it is much more. The characters of Dickens & Fowler get drawn into the story, as creators, as commentators and, ultimately, as actors.

This is a story which already takes place across a number of time settings: the past, the present and more than one possible future. Edgar uses this to create a web of mirroring and referencing between past, present and future selves, characters and scenes. The addition of interchangeable layers of reality expands the potential for this webbing. The result is a narrative of remarkable depth and richness in terms of imagery, shifting perspectives and the way the story shines a light on the psychology of its creator.

Despite the complexity of the techniques used in the storytelling, the play never loses sight of the fantastical, fairy-tale at its heart. It is a spellbinding spectacle. Brilliant stagecraft is used throughout to create magical effects. Hilarity and larger than life characters abound. A Christmas party scene with a madcap dance routine seems to leap off the stage as the embodiment of festive joy.

The audience is invited to get swept up in the magic and energy, but never allowed to get lost in it. The play walks a tightrope – avoiding sentimentality by constantly reminding us of the harsh realities of Victorian life and, indeed, our own modern lives.

As Scrooge Adrian Edmondson leads a flawless cast. His performance is towering but never overshadowing; this is an ensemble show. Scrooge’s epiphany is marvellously well handled and totally convincing. This is partly because Edmondson plays the miserly old man with such deep undertones of humanity, but also because the character’s transformation is about accepting the child within. And this is an actor who excels at being beguilingly childlike. Scrooge comes to sees the world as it is but with an innocent gratitude and wonder, and he invites us to do the same. This is a stunning piece of theatre.

The performance was audio described and it was great to see so many young students from the Worcester School for the Blind and other partially sighted members of the audience being able to enjoy the show.

Charles Dickens – Gavin Fowler
John Forster – Beruce Khan
Ebenezer Scrooge – Adrian Edmondson
Bob Cratchit – Mitesh Soni
Mrs Baldock – Rachel Denning
Fred – Joseph Prowen
Tim – Jasiri Brown
Ghost of Jacob Marley – Giles Taylor
Ghost of Christmas Past – Rebecca Lacey
Young Scrooge – Aiden Cole
Fanny – Liyah Summers
Mr Fezziwig – Clive Hayward
Mrs Fezziwig – Sunetra Sarker
Martha Cratchit – Emma Pallant

Director – Rachel Kavanaugh
Designer – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Composer – Catherine Jayes

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