In these cold, cynical days, when ‘bah humbug’ perfectly describes the commercialism of Christmas, there comes an annual tradition as old as, well, Charles Dickens himself.
A Christmas Carol, for me, encapsulates the season. Part ghost story, part morality tale, it contains every element to lift the spirits and put everyone in the festive mood for December 25.
The Old Vic’s gloriously exuberant production, which has just opened, is a wonderful combination of classic Dickens with a touch of Brucie’s Generation Game thrown in.
Presiding over it all is the beligerent Ebenezer Scrooge played to gleeful excess by Rhys Ifans.
He must be sick of hearing it but, on paper, judged by his earlier roles as scruffy oddballs in Richard Curtis romcoms, he’d be a strange choice as the elderly miser.
But Ifans’ inevitable maturity has empowered him and his rangey, angular frame, doleful expression and unkempt appearance, is perfect for a character too mean to eat or care for himself.
Matthew Warchus’ production of Jack Thorne’s adaptation is quite magical in places. Hugh Vanstone’s beautiful twinkling, lantern lighting, and Simon Baker’s ghostly sound effects, are superb and hugely atmospheric.
There are the inevitable snow showers, which gives audiences a bad case of temporary dandruff, and a nod to commercialism with Waitrose-donated mince pies, given away to theatre-goers as they take their seats (and delicious they are too).
But the show brilliantly erupts into life at Scrooge’s epiphany and a madcap few minutes ensues.
Sprouts parachute in, sausage links are passed over the excited stalls’ crowds, and oranges take a mega-sheet slide onto the stage from the upstairs circle.
Best of all is the turkey’s spectacular ascent into the Christmas Day feast of Bob Cratchit and his family.
A repentant Scrooge undergoes a complete change of character with Ifans running around the theatre, kissing startled ticket-holders and grinning maniacally.
At one point he appears to lose all self control and throws in a bit of Pythonesque banter standing and pouting, Eric Idle-like, as the story spins giddily on its axis.
It’s a contrast to earlier scenes when the notoriously mean spirited debt-collector scowls and spits out his lines in obvious disgust at the monetary and spiritual excess of the holiday season.
When everyone regains their composure, and throughout the production, the cast, who have been coached in bell-ringing, regale with superb renditions of Christmas carols.
During an encore the circle seats, which last night contained a coach party or two of teens, spontaneously erupted into a beautifully soft accompanyment of Silent Night. Perfection.
Some things don’t work as well. A decision to reconfigure, and extend, the in-the-round stage to include a catwalk, meant those sitting in the pit stalls, either side, missed a great deal unless they craned their necks upwards throughout – but we did get a great view of the cast’s ankles.
The three ghosts responsible for showing Scrooge the error of their ways, are unremarkable and poor Bob Cratchit – the lovely, talented John Dagleish – isn’t seen nearly enough, his family’s story almost forgotten as Thorne’s version concentrates very much on the old moneylender.
But, of course, everyone has their heartstrings pulled by Tiny Tim (Toby Eden making a touching professional stage debut).
There were several moments during his brief, but poignant, appearance when the moved audience (the girls in the student coach parties above by the sounds of it) oohed and aahed, sometimes too loudly and inappropriately, but everyone else silently echoed their sentiments.
Although there is a large ensemble cast this is mainly Ifans’ show. Alex Gaumond is shockingly good as Ebenezer’s violent, abusive and cold-hearted father, suggesting lack of nurture and not nature was responsible for the miser’s offensive adult countenance.
He also briefly plays a spectoral Marley, dragging an endless anchor of chains behind him.
The only women in Scrooge’s life, his sister Little Fan (Melissa Allen) and Fezziwig’s engaging daughter, Belle (Erin Doherty) add lightness to this dark story.
A splendid opener for the Christmas season.
A Christmas Carol runs at The Old Vic Theatre until January 20.
A Christmas Carol
Rhys Ifans creates a vibrant and compelling Ebenezer Scrooge in The Old Vic's magical production of A Christmas Carol.