I’m not sure if it’s actually an official law of theatre reviewing, but it doesn’t seem right to get through an entire festive season without taking a view on at least one production of the story which tends to be put on more than any other. Panto “splits the vote” with its many variations but there’s only one ghost story which will really do; of course, I’m referring to A Christmas Carol. A quick Google search reveals a plethora of versions across the country. In London alone there’s a high profile production at Alexandra Palace and one taking place in the Middle Temple while the Park Theatre have changed things round a bit with Cratchit. At the Old Vic it has almost become a tradition in itself to stage an annual production and now its sister theatre in Bristol is the provider of an online version filmed in 2019 and released (free) for a limited period.
Adapted by the venue’s Artistic Director, Tom Morris, the narrative sticks fairly closely to the Dickensian original, even if the action has been transposed from London to Bristol. The show also adopts a somewhat less traditional design aesthetic. It’s really a heady blend of steampunk, grand guignol and Victorian pantomime/circus from Tom Rogers much in the vein of Bristol Old Vic’s earlier success The Grinning Man. It makes a refreshing change from the more formal costume drama approach which is often the norm while bolstering the supernatural elements of the well-known story in which four ghosts visit the miserly Scrooge and show him visions which make him change his ways. True Jacob Marley (Ewan Black) does rather remind one of Beetlejuice but the use of puppetry (design by Matt Hutchinson) for the Ghosts of Christmases Past and To Come is an inspired choice. The former is cleverly linked to Scrooge’s departed sister Little Fan (Rebecca Hayes) which helps the piece dig more deeply into Scrooge’s back story and provide psychological reasons for the man he has become.
And at the centre of events this adaptation has done away with the crotchety elderly miser. In John Hopkins’ interpretation Scrooge is rather more vital and bullish than usual, a man who has clear priorities and a truly deep seated avarice. If anything, he is even more unpleasant than ever, spitting venom at any merry makers and carol singers who dare to cross his path. It’s a strong, different and yet somehow entirely appropriate characterisation. Hopkins also has good rapport with the audience where his improvised sardonic comments receive plenty of laughs. He is the only one character actor. The rest of the nine strong team double and treble furiously with an obvious stand out from BSL signing actor Stephen Collins playing belittled clerk Bob Cratchit (Scrooge refuses to do what he describes as “wavy language”) and a fetchingly ebullient Mrs Fezziwig. Others in the company manipulate the various puppets and some also make up the small band led by composer Gwyneth Herbert. She comes out from behind the piano to embody the Ghost of Christmas Present who starts Act Two off in rousing fashion.
Although this isn’t a pantomime there are elements of the genre which creep in such as a communal singalong (this was obviously way before Covid) and by getting the audience to make suggestions about how Scrooge should change – “Get your wallet out!” is one Bristolian’s sage advice. Most cleverly used though is the tradition of getting children up on stage and here two youngsters find themselves taking part in the action as Scrooge as a boy and in the pivotal role of Tiny Tim. I did cringe slightly as it started to happen but actually it really works and helps to reinforce the timelessness of the narrative.
A Christmas Carol is only available for a very limited time. But if you’ve got no other version planned then this is a very enjoyable interpretation from a theatre that has put out some of the best online work in 2021. I hope that this will continue to be the case in the new year.