Theatre review: A Christmas Carol, Edinburgh

IT’S A strange thing, to roll up to the Royal Lyceum and watch this brisk, bright version of Charles Dickens’s great 1843 story A Christmas Carol, in the week when London’s mayor Boris Johnson officially announced a return to the idea that greed is good, and to the belief that the rich enjoy their wealth because they are superior creatures to the rest of us.

Christopher Fairbanks put in a powerful central performance as Scrooge. Picture: Julie Bull
Christopher Fairbanks put in a powerful central performance as Scrooge. Picture: Julie Bull

A Christmas Carol - Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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It’s not that Andrew Panton’s fast-moving production of Neil Duffield’s adaptation makes much of the clear contemporary resonances, in this story of the rich old miser Scrooge who hates and blames the poor, and famously declares that those who are starving “had better die, and decrease the surplus population”.

The show’s look and atmosphere is Victorian to a fault, the music – in Claire Mackenzie’s fine choral score – is made up of rich, nostalgic medleys of traditional English Christmas carols and hymns and the script oddly misses the most powerful line in the whole story, the moment when Marley’s ghost, reminded by Scrooge that he used to be “a good man of business”, roars “Business? Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.”

Yet for all the show’s lightness of touch, and its slightly garish scarlet Christmas-card aesthetic, older audience members would have to be deaf indeed not to hear the echoes of current political debate in Christopher Fairbanks’s powerful central performance as Scrooge, as he flatly refuses to pay a living wage to his employee Bob Cratchit, and denounces those in need of help as scroungers.

For all his sentimentality, Dickens was a political animal through and through, outraged by the attitudes he observed among wealthy people; and nothing in politics is finally more radical, or more contested even today, than his absolute insistence that the life of Cratchit’s little son Tiny Tim is worth as much as that of any wealthy child.

And if none of this is dwelt upon in Panton’s version of the story, every element of it is there, as we whizz briskly through Scrooge’s visitation from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come. Alex Lowde’s set is simple and ingenious, using a few simple props – plus Tim Reid‘s excellent video design – to signal the story’s rapid shifts out of Scrooge’s dismal room into a 19th century midwinter world full of laughter and celebration, misery and suffering, memories and possibilities.

The songs are beautifully sung – and partly played – by a terrific ensemble cast of 11, including three brilliant young actors playing the children in the story. And if the final medley is a shade over-emphatic, there’s no doubt that this fine Christmas show sends its audience out into the night exhilarated and thrilled.

Glad, like the reformed Scrooge, to be alive, and to still have in our hands the chance to live more generously, and to help create a world where Tiny Tim – and all the millions like him – need not die, after all.