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‘Will only go from strength to strength as the run continues’: A CHRISTMAS CAROL – Old Vic (Online review)

It is week two of the A Christmas Carol Cold War in London’s West End and the turn of the Old Vic who have made their new digital production available to international audiences online until Christmas Eve. A very different prospect from the wonderfully atmospheric take on Dickens’ festive ghost story at the Bridge Theatre, this In Camera version (also with a 90-minute running time) uses increasingly sophisticated Zoom techniques to transcend the social distancing challenges of delivering such a large scale production.

An annual event at the Old Vic for several years with previous Scrooges including Rhys Ifans, Paterson Joseph and Stephen Tomkinson, this In Camera production marks a return to the stage for Andrew Lincoln who takes on the mantel of Jack Thorne’s slightly younger interpretation of the central character whose Thatcherite individualism refuses to be thawed by the succession of spirits determined to show him the error of his ways. Thorne’s Scrooge is unswayable, refusing to be made misty eyed by the memories of his past or feel any responsibility for the lives of those his business touches, certain his path is the right one.

If this is your inaugural experience of the Old Vic’s interpretation, then the first thing you will notice is that Thorne’s version of this most famous of festive stories is a little different, using Dickens’ novella as a frame to draw on the descriptive passages and dialogue but curtailing or entirely dispensing with some of the better known segments to expand the story outward. Most notable is the inclusion of a psychological backstory far larger than the one that the Ghost of Christmas Past traditionally reveals, and while a whistlestop tour of school days and Fezziwig’s party are included, the insertion of Scrooge’s father is most unexpected.

Why Scrooge was at the boarding school in the first place becomes part of an origins story of child abuse, violence and paternal disappointment that shapes Ebenezer’s later attitudes and activities. Thorne includes several scenes in which the cold and contemptuous head of the family taunts his notably motherless son, expressing a lack of faith in the younger Scrooge’s ability to provide for them. And himself laden with debt, this father character appears across the first two ghostly visitations expressing disapproval that adds an extra dimension in Thorne’s more deterministic trajectory for Scrooge taking him from schoolboy to miserly financier determined to chart a different path to his overbearing and less successful father. There is a strong family theme throughout the production that equally builds on Scrooge’s adoration of his sister Little Fan, a purity of feeling that becomes increasingly vital as he eventually reconsiders his life.

Thorne tinkers with the story in several other ways, playing on the darker thematic elements around death to make Fezziwig a funeral director rather than a merchant allowing this version of Scrooge to demonstrate his more grasping traits far earlier than Dickens suggests. And while Belle is usually a momentary figure that Scrooge exchanges as his greed grows, Thorne – drawn to a love story – initially shows her to be the placating influence that could have redirected Scrooge’s fiscal obsession and then uses her as a recurring character against whom Scrooge can measure the success of his life choices. Belle’s subsequent family happiness is thus relocated to scenes presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present and she again appears in a slightly reconfigured redemption sequence at the end.

The production races along, dispensing with much of Dickens’s preamble and scene setting and reaching the arrival of Marley almost immediately. Act One is only 50-minutes accounting for three of the four spiritual ventures while Act Two is around 40-minutes so many of the familiar crutches are excised or limited to passing comments. Tiny Tim becomes even tinier, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is recast as a familiar character while most of its visions are condensed into one funereal scene. Thorne also plays around with the structure of the story to bring Bob and Fred into Scrooge’s future for a brief oration that makes sense both of their innate goodness as people but also their persistence in upholding a relationship with the man they should both consider a lost cause.

But perhaps Thorne’s most intriguing change is to tinker with concepts of reality in the final section of the story when a seemingly redeemed Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning born again. There are no eager urchins and giant turkeys here, and while Thorne provides the usual bombastic joy of redemption in which the now light-hearted hero spreads good cheer and charity throughout London, the return of the three ghosts for one last encounter with Scrooge forces the audience and the character to reconsider what they have just experienced.

Best of all is the decision to let the actor in the role of Scrooge play all versions of himself throughout other than his earliest appearance as a schoolboy. It means the title character is less an observer of his past, present and future, standing in the shadows and watching it unfold but an active participant, reinforcing the concept that this is his life which he recreates for the audience as a means of reconnecting with it.

Most of the changes work well and while film in particular has been perhaps too in love with unnecessary origins stories in recent years, the chance to expand on and reset this overly-familiar Christmas story is an interesting one. Brief by Dickens’s standards, A Christmas Carol retains its eternally captivating hold over us because the characters feel as though they exist beyond the confines of the novel; that Scrooge lived before and after the period of Dickens’s tale is something Thorne uses to open out the story and distinguish it from the many competing adaptations, of which there are many this year. Purists may not be so kind.

The Filming Style

This is by far the most ambitious In Camera production to date, including both a far larger cast and a much longer run than previous productions – Lungs, Three Kings and Faith Healer. And across the series (all briefly available as pre-recorded encore showings in recent weeks), it is clear how much Matthew Warchus and his camera team have learnt about the various ways to tell stories on film within the limitations of the side-by-side Zoom box functionality, a feat that was relatively manageable with only a couple characters speaking at any one time.

But, A Christmas Carol is far more complex, requiring the In Camera team to rethink direction, blocking and scene structure to capture several socially distanced actors at once. It opens with a montage effect in which eight boxes containing a bell ringing narrator edge the screen around a central picture, after which the middle image expands to fill half of the screen and this multilayered, multi-camera effect is used throughout with varying success. At its best, it allows actors to have dialogue with one another in close-up, creating intimacy and grounding in the story as scenarios come quickly to life, particularly effective in conversations between Scrooge and Belle as she sizes him up during their first meeting or later through a doorway that uses the edges of the prop frame to allude to their proximity.

The technique is used frequently, splicing the screen in two or three boxes as Scrooge interacts with the various people in his life usually watched over by one of the Ghosts. For it to work effectively it requires considerable technical management by the actors, knowing exactly where to stand at the right moment in a busy and fast moving live performance to create the illusion of direct conversation when one camera cannot capture all parties. In the first weekend outing, this didn’t always go to plan as arms or an actor’s movement accidentally intruded into another camera shot making them appear in two places at once which the longer run will have time to polish. While the possibilities of Zoom have come a long way this year, its limitations cannot replicate the cutting techniques of film in capturing action and reaction as competently as perhaps the National Theatre Live team did so recently with Death of England (Delroy) Occasionally hectic in direction, these side-by-side boxes and attempts to move rapidly between then is sometimes too jarring and creates a little falsity in the set-up.

But the most impressive aspect of this digital A Christmas Carol is the live layering of images to create spectral scenes. This was a technique used to great effect by Chichester Theatre recently in Crave to transition between the actors and only visible to those watching the live stream. Here, it really comes into its own by creating echoed images that overlay one another to impressively create scenes hauntingly reanimated by the Ghosts. Visually this is a full screen shot in which Scrooge can move freely and safely around the stage among what look like semi-transparent phantoms filmed elsewhere and merged with the central image. The production team also create twin images of individuals on stage and blur them to suggest the bustle and exuberance of the London crowds on Christmas Day which gives the production a dynamic feel as it builds to a positive conclusion.

The Theatre Techniques

Some of the best moments though are those in which the theatre techniques of the Old Vic are given prominence; seeing the darkened auditorium illuminated by hanging lanterns is beautiful and transporting food from the Lilian Baylis Circle to the stage via fabric chute is wonderfully inventive. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is to be much admired creating shadow and stark white spotlight to evoke the changing mood of the story while bathing the scene in shades of warm purple that bring the room alive onscreen. Rob Howell’s Victorian costumes and minimal props nod to the traditional while Christopher Nightingale’s original music performed live in the Dress Circle by Will Stuart, Chris Allan, Clare Taylor, Martin Robertson and Pedro Vieira da Silva is understated but integral to the pace and shape of the story.

In celebration of the purely theatre elements of this show, Andrew Lincoln’s Scrooge is a joy, overcoming the strangeness of a hybrid production and the numerous challenges of the presentation style to deliver a more vigorous interpretation of the man than often seen. He is also considerably meaner, almost admirably so with his refusal to be swayed by the tricks of the three ghosts and resolute that his ability to take care of himself remains the correct choice for him.

He rejects the vary basis for change so soundly that his eventual redemption may seem rather sudden and the audience may enjoy his lack of sentimentality about his past or the concept of Christmas, even coming to quite like his irascible refusal to be cowed on the say so of some interfering other worldly beings – this is a man who knows who he is. But amidst the swirling Zoom adventures, Lincoln brings a real gravitas to proceedings, anchoring the production and delivering a performance of variety and skill that will leave you hoping he returns to the stage more often in the future.

There is good support from Melissa Allan as Scrooge’s sister Little Fan who has far more purpose here, while Maria Omakinwa stepping in as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Golda Rosheuvel as the Ghost of Christmas Present offer some no nonsense spirits that develop a connection with each other as well as the protagonist. Clive Rowe is great as Fezziwig and chief bell ringer / narrator while Michael Rouse brings fright as both Marley and Scrooge senior.

The In Camera series has really pushed the boundaries of live theatre this year for a venue unable to reopen, and while this one is not yet perfect, the Old Vic is thinking hard about the narrative and technical aspects of the audience experience. Running for the fourth time, the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is now an annual tradition of a not quite traditional interpretation. Circumstances may have changed this year but necessity is the mother of invention and this transition to online production will only go from strength to strength as the run continues.

A Christmas Carol runs at the via the Old Vic: In Camera series until 24 December with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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