A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

I am truly saddened to have to record my disappointment with playwright David Edgar and director Rachel Kavanaugh’s de-magic-ing adaptation of Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Although the strength of the original still shines through.

Written in 1843 it is the much-loved story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a solitary old loan shark who abandons his miserly ways, after being visited by four ghosts on the night of Christmas Eve. It sprang from Dickens’ outraged reaction to a parliamentary report about the exploitation of working children. Initially inclined to campaign politically, he choose instead to attack with popular fiction, describing it as, ’a sledge hammer [coming down] with 20,000 times the force’.

And a sledge-hammer message it remains, readily adaptable to the age of the gig economy and the ever-widening wealth gap, without need of structural change or dampening down of the joyful, redemptive ending.

Instead, back comes the political campaigning, with Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor and friend John Forster (Beruce Khan) introduced as narrators and occasionally commentators. The ghosts are robbed of their menace and mystery, and the spotlight on Scrooge (Phil Davis) dims.

In fairness, adaptation is no easy matter. Even 19th century poverty can look like a whimsical, glowing Victorian Christmas card; the novel’s tendency towards sentimentality needs to be resisted; and the scene changes rapidly as the ghosts take Scrooge through his past, present and probable future.

The big thrust stage, effectively backed by scenery of grim housing, is readily transformed to the flowing situation. Intimate scenes, however, are not well served, and too often dialogue is abruptly and unnaturally tossed around in large groupings.

There are compensations. The party dancing overlorded by the youthful Scrooge’s paternalistic employer Mr Fezziwig (John Hodgkinson) is a joy of joys, full of skillful verve and innocent exuberance. Whilst Gerard Carey as the put upon clerk Bob Cratchit, enjoys a prolonged double-take. Believing himself dismissed, he tells his born again employer what he thinks of him, after mis-hearing an unprecedented string of generosity.

The ending generally, however, shies away from unconfined jubilation. The transformation of one exploiter, it seems to say, is as nothing as compared to the enormity of the problem.

Perhaps, but for me that’s works against the spirit of Dickens, ignoring the power, persuasive effect and optimism of Scrooge’s conversion. I may well be wrong, and – to totally destroy my own credibility, I have to admit to shedding a tear or two whenever and wherever I come across those final scenes – even in The Muppets’ version!       ★★★☆☆     Derek Briggs    22nd December 2017