It’s perhaps the most famous of all Christmas stories, written by Charles Dickens in 1843 – at the height of Britain’s first industrial revolution – and published on 19 December that year. The first edition had sold out by Christmas Day, and the little book was in its 13th edition by the time Christmas 1844 came round; perhaps because, as much as any of Dickens’s full-length novels, the story offered an unforgettable vision of the huge economic inequalities created by rapid social and industrial change, of the sheer cruelty of a society in which wealthy individuals took no responsibility for those harsh social divisions, and of how their attitudes conflicted with the message of love and goodwill that lies at the heart of Christmas, then fast becoming the biggest family festival of the year.
The parallels with our own times, over the last 40 years, are striking, as a new information revolution has swept through our economy, and the laissez-faire ideology of institutionalised indifference, and of punitive attitudes to those living in poverty, has made a frightening comeback. So it’s perhaps not surprising that theatre adaptations of A Christmas Carol have become ever more popular during that time; and of all these versions, few have engaged more energetically with Dickens’s original story than the Edinburgh Christmas Carol commissioned by the Lyceum Theatre, last year, from brilliant comedy writer and director Tony Cownie, who enjoys a huge reputation in Scottish theatre for his inspired handling of shows including Liz Lochhead’s Tartuffe, and the memorable Edinburgh-set version of The Belle’s Stratagem seen at the Lyceum in 2018.
In tackling A Christmas Carol, Cownie boldly decided to deal head-on with the fact that in Scotland, until the mid-20th century, Christmas really was not much of a thing, compared with New Year; indeed it only became an official public holiday in Scotland in 1958. His Scrooge, superbly played by Crawford Logan, is therefore the very epitome of Calvinist religiosity deployed as an excuse for absolute joylessness, combined with financial stinginess; and although this new vision of Scrooge’s motivation may not match the story at every step, Cownie’s Edinburgh version – complete with castle views, a Greyfriars Bobby sub-plot, and a gorgeous puppet Tiny Tim – emerged as roaring festive success, and indeed the Lyceum’s most popular Christmas show since the company was founded in the 1960s.
In these scenes from the show, performed by seven members of the original cast in a special Christmas Scotsman Session, we move from Scrooge’s original rejection of all things Christmas-related, through his first encounter with the ghost of Christmas Lang Syne, to a brief reflection on the home life of his clerk Bob Cratchit’s family – overshadowed by starvation wages and fears for the health of Tiny Tim – to a warning of the likely loneliness and lovelessness of Scrooge’s own death, as his underpaid housekeeper cheerfully flogs off his few personal effects to a local rag-and-bone man.
In the last scene, though, we catch a glimpse of how Scrooge learns that he can change the world of others by living generously rather than meanly, and also transform the quality of his own life. And a few final images of the show on stage come both as a welcome reminder, for those who saw it, of past good times at the theatre; and as a glimpse, for those who missed it, of one of those joyful shows that might be ripe for a happy revival, when our theatres finally open their doors again.
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