A Christmas Carol review: Old Vic’s moving festive show returns with Stephen Mangan

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 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

The arrival of Jack Thorne’s delightful adaptation of Dickens at the Old Vic each year is a sign that Christmas has begun. Matthew Warchus’s production, back in front of a live audience after being livestreamed from the stage in 2020, is a fine-tuned crowd-pleaser laced with carols and candlelight, that takes every possible opportunity to wring the emotions. At Monday night’s performance, rowdy schoolkids pelting the stalls from the circle pre-show were hypnotised first into rapt stillness and then rapturous applause. Resistance really is useless.

This time round Stephen Mangan steps into the Scrooge shoes first occupied by Rhys Ifans in 2017. With a shock of grey hair and a grizzled beard, this intensely likeable actor brings gruff impatience rather than icy viciousness to the miser’s early misanthropy. He’s a brusque, booming, forceful Scrooge, biting off his words with contemptuous distaste. His rebirth through ghostly visitation is utterly joyful.

Otherwise, it’s very much an ensemble show, with the audience in on the action from the start. The Old Vic is once again arranged in the round, the cast roaming the stalls handing out mince pies and clementines before the lights dim. The stage is arranged as a cross, with a cluster of lanterns above and four doorways hemming in Scrooge, “as solitary as an oyster”, and the strongboxes that make up the set.

Stephen Mangan (Manuel Harlan)
Stephen Mangan (Manuel Harlan)

Music is a huge part of the production, with carols and hymns sung in harmony or played on handbells and penny whistles. Though full of feeling, it’s thankfully free of the sentiment and the queasy, forced jollity that can make Dickens so trying. There’s quiet affection between Scrooge and his sister Fan, genuine – if respectful - passion between him and his employer Fezziwig’s daughter Belle. Andrew Langtree is chilling as both Marley’s ghost and Scrooge’s father.

Though the two starving children of Dickens’s story, Want and Ignorance, don’t get a look-in here, the moral message about poverty and our responsibility for others comes across strongly. Thorne’s script may have been tweaked a little: I don’t recall Scrooge identifying himself as a “predator” before. Elsewhere, I noticed details I hadn’t in previous years: the pink colour-coding of the ghosts’ costumes, the way the prams they push morph into a coffin carriage.

It all builds to a fantastic coup de theatre at Scrooge’s redemption, when potatoes and apples tumble from the gods to the stage on fabric chutes, sprouts flutter down on tiny parachutes, and a huge turkey on a zipwire bowls Mangan over. Presenting this feast to the Cratchit family, Scrooge has an intensely affecting scene with Tiny Tim, played at the performance I saw by charming and confident Eleanor Stollery. You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved and, when Mangan solicits donations for a modern poverty charity at the curtain call, not to dig deep.

Old Vic, to Jan 8; oldvictheatre.com

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