Anne Cox delivers her verdict on a very special production of the Dickens classic, on at Middle Temple Hall in London til December 30.
A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous books ever written, no doubt about it.
Our definition of poverty may have changed somewhat since Dickens’ day, but his morality tale is as relevant in our era of austerity, food banks and the Big Society (remember that?) as it ever was.
It’s a story that transcends centuries and cultures, and has survived hundreds of stage and screen adaptations of varying style and quality, because of a very simple and enduring message: just be a bit kinder to each other.
Award-winning theatre company Antic Disposition first performed A Christmas Carol at the historic Middle Temple Hall in the heart of London’s City in 2012, to excellent reviews and a sell-out run.
But having seen their rather dreary Romeo & Juliet at Temple Church earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
It’s Christmas Eve and the old and bitter miser Ebenezer Scrooge (West End star David Burt, reminiscent of a washed-up ’70s rocker in need of a shave) couldn’t care less.
He begrudgingly grants his clerk Bob Cratchit (Paul Tonkin) the 25th off work, before retiring for the night to his cold and lonely rooms.
Cue the ghost of his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley and a supporting cast of genuinely quite scary, Thriller-esque, ghouls.
With hunched backs and distorted faces, they’re weighed down with chains forged through lifetimes of greed and selfishness.
The spine-tingling gust of cold air felt in the creaking hall, whether it was intentional or not, was a nice touch.
Can Scrooge avoid such a fate? Marley arranges for Scrooge to be visited by three ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, who’ll try and persuade the miser to open his heart to his fellow men.
The ghosts show us, and Scrooge, how and why he became the man he did.
The young Ebenezer was once as much fun as any other boy, and his ultimately overwhelming obsession with money began simply as a desire to provide financial stability for the woman he loves.
The scene where the young Scrooge’s fiancee Belle (Emma Whittaker) leaves him is heartbreaking.
“Money will never be enough to protect you from unhappiness,” we’re warned.
Middle Temple Hall is a dramatic venue. Lighting Designer Tom Boucher does a phenomenal, atmospheric, job, and we’re treated to significantly better acoustics than at the neighbouring Temple Church.
The striking Elizabethan room is a most fitting venue for a night of Dickens.
The man himself gained admission to the Middle Temple as a law student in 1839, and remained until 1855, having written many of his most popular works – including A Christmas Carol – over the period.
Such a beautiful setting could easily have become a distraction – particularly after a glass of mulled wine – but with a gravelly voice and an air of menace that far exceeds his stature, Burt’s brilliant Scrooge never failed to hold my attention.
Following Scrooge’s epiphany, he has the audience in hysterics as he tosses gold coins around the room, drunk on Christmas spirit.
David Anthony plays a memorable Ghost of Christmas Present, flicking from jolly green giant to bellowing, looming spectre, as we see Scrooge finally begin to crack.
Dickens’ ghostly tale is interspersed with a score of original songs inspired by the carols of a Victorian Christmas, and I was still humming them the next morning.
We’ve seen A Christmas Carol with Muppets, animation, and in mime, but this is as traditional a production as you’ll get and all the better for it.
You can’t put down the novel, leave the theatre or turn the channel on A Christmas Carol without looking at your own life and how you treat the people around you, particularly those who are less fortunate.
Dickens appeals to both the selflessness and selfishness within us all.
We know we should do good deeds purely to improve the lives of others, but who doesn’t also fear a funeral devoid of mourners?
As he looks back on his childhood fantasies in a beautifully choreographed scene with an imaginary Ali Baba and Robin Hood, Scrooge mutters “now I’m too old for stories”.
I don’t think there’s a person alive who’d ever feel that way about this much-loved Christmas classic.