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Why A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic is now a London festive tradition

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It was on the 20th November, 2017 that an exciting new adaptation of A Christmas Carol first opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London. With so many versions of the classic Dickens tale available across all conceivable forms of media, people may have been forgiven for thinking that this was to be yet another take on a familiar story, destined to linger only as far as the new year before lying forgotten in a dark shelf like an empty tin of Quality Street…Five years later, it is difficult to picture Christmas in London without A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. So what makes this particular production so enduring where many others are left in the sooty chimney of entertainment history? Read on to find out.

The Old Vic adaptation of A Christmas Carol celebrates Victorian and modern sensibilities

Promotional artwork for A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic, London
Book tickets for A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic here.

Any great adaptations starts with… the adapting! For A Christmas Carol, the task fell to the incredibly talented and prolific pen of Jack Thorne – a Bristol-born screenwriter, playwright and stalwart campaigner for disability representation in the media. Thorne has a list of writing credits that is as impressive as it is extensive. He has contributed to TV shows Skins, Shameless,This is England and His Dark Materials. He wrote the films The Scouting Book for Boys, The Aeronauts, Radioactive and Enola Holmes. His theatrical writing credits include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, new adaptations of The Physicists, Let the Right One In and Woyzeck and even a musical, Junkyard.

Thorne is renowned for adapting stories in such a way that reflect contemporary sensibilities while always remaining true to the soul of the original text. One need only look at his faithful and powerful TV adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials compared to the overblown critical dud released by Hollywood under the title The Golden Compass. There is no doubt that Thorne is the right wordsmith for taking Dickens’ work and moulding it into a script that feels fresh and modern, while remaining incredibly, well, “Dickensian”!

Scrooge and Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic, London

In an interview with Billboard, Jack Thorne stated that he only looked at the original text when he was adapting A Christmas Carol and not other adaptations. He also stated that Matthew Warchus, Artistic Director of the Old Vic, told him “I want you to strip away all of the Dickens stuff and just tell Scrooge’s story”. This focus on Scrooge, the kind of person he has become and his transformation into someone more charitable, more socially-minded and ultimately more happy, is the core of the story and it is what Thorne focused on for his adaptation. The Independent wrote of Jack Thorne‘s adaptation and Warchus‘ direction that:

provides everything you might want from a theatrical adaptation of Dickens’s timeless (and never more timely) morality tale urging social responsibility and compassion… the new adaptation by Jack Thorne fuses fun with the macabre and a fine degree of psychological depth… both witty and deeply affecting.

The Independent, 30th November 2017

A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic is designed to spread festive cheer

Theatregoers love to feel festive at Christmas. This is a fact, and several yearly productions have proven the importance of that seasonal magic. These include The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum, The Snowman at Sadler’s Wells and, now, A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. There’s something deep in our cultural DNA that responds to “Christmassy” motifs during those months when the days get darker and colder: jingling bells, a white dusting of snow on a lamppost, the smell of roasting chestnuts and the warmth of an open fire. Director Matthew Warchus understands this, and has worked with his team to endure the staging and production design of A Christmas Carol are meticulously crafted to spread those feelings of Christmas throughout the auditorium.

A Christmas Carol clearly puts theatregoers in the Christmas mood, based on these wonderful audience reactions!

The production is staged in the round, bringing audiences together under small hanging lanterns and flurries of fake snow. From the moment the auditorium opens, the ensemble sings beautiful renditions of traditional carols while they walk amongst the audience, handing out mince pies and satsumas. Everything from the appearances of the three ghostly guides, to a spectacularly staged Christmas feast, are rich with the balanced mix of gothic and gleeful that is unique to the Victorian Christmas theme.

Superb actors are chosen to play Scrooge at The Old Vic

“Who will play Scrooge at the Old Vic” has become one of the biggest casting announcements in the West End calendar. As one of the most iconic characters in English literature, Ebenezer Scrooge is a figure for whom we all have a picture in our head. This may have been formed by actors who have played the role in its many film adaptations. Major stars such as Alistair Sim, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carey and Kelsey Grammar are just a few that have left their mark on the history of this character.

The Old Vic is renowned for its ability to attract great British talent to its stage and its annual production of A Christmas Carol cements this reputation. These are all the terrific actors to have played Ebenezer Scrooge since the show first opened.

2017 – Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic

Welsh actor and musician Rhys Ifans rose to global fame for his comical portrayal of Spike in Notting Hill. He has since forged a varied acting career in the UK and Hollywood, with major roles in Kevin & Perry Go Large, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Amazing Spider-Man and House of the Dragon. Ifans was applauded for showing a human side of Scrooge, with Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington saying “he has the right acidulous leanness and his spiky, straw-coloured hair betokens personal negligence. Instead of simply showing us a skinflint-turned-philanthropist, Ifans suggests, aided by Thorne’s script, a man damaged by life.”

2018 – Stephen Tompkinson

Stephen Tompkinson as Ebenezer Scrooge at the Old Vic

British Comedy Award-winner Stephen Tompkinson is a renowned star of TV comedy and drama with credits including Drop the Dead Donkey, Ballykissangel, Trollied and DCI Banks. On stage he won many fans playing King Arthur in Monty Python musical Spamalot at the Playhouse. Whatsonstage praised the way Tompkinson portrayed Scrooge’s transformation, writing “Tompkinson makes an excellent Scrooge, his long frame crouched and stooped in the early scenes, perhaps by the weight of all that money and misery. By the end, the scales of selfishness dropped from his eyes, he stands tall and light-footed, and skips across the set”

2019 – Paterson Joseph

Paterson Joseph as Ebenezer Scrooge at the Old Vic

Paterson Joseph is adored across Britain for his hilarious portrayal of the usually slick but occasionally unhinged businessman Alan Johnson in Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. Other credits include The Green Wing, Casualty and Survivors. Like other actors before him, Joseph was applauded for bringing depth to Scrooge, with The Stage review saying “With his expressive face, rum-and-thunder voice and patchy fuzz of grey hair, his Scrooge is not as cold-souled as Dickens’ protagonist, rather a man who has let his own terror of debt turn him into a joyless, loveless pincher of pennies.”

2020 – Andrew Lincoln

Andrew Lincoln as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic

Andrew Lincoln is known worldwide for his leading role as Rick Grimes in long-running TV-series The Walking Dead. When A Christmas Carol went online during the 2020 pandemic, Lincoln played Scrooge with a portrayal that certainly won over one New York Times critic, who described him as “remarkably charismatic even at his meanest. Still handsome with a wintry beard, his Scrooge is all eyebrows and mouth, furrowing into a suspicious glare or twitching into a sneer. It’s enough to make a Victorian girl swoon.”

2021 – Stephen Mangan

Stephen Mangan as Ebenezer Scrooge at the Old Vic

Stephen Mangan has had a varied career as a comedian, actor, television personality and writer. He is known for his roles in The Green Wing, I’m Alan Partridge and for the title role in Postman Pat: The Movie along with many appearances hosting or participating in primetime television panel shows. On Broadway he was Tony Award-nominated for playing the lead in The Norman Conquests. Whatsonstage wrote of Mangan‘s turn in A Christmas Carol “if Stephen Mangan’s tremendous Scrooge seems more contemporary at first than one might expect, he also suggests, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, the link between the young Ebenezer and the miser he becomes.”

2022 – Owen Teale

Owen Teale promotional headshot for A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic

This year, the role of Scrooge falls to Welsh actor Owen Teale, best known for his recurring role of Ser Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones.

You can hear Owen Teale‘s thoughts on the production and his turn at playing Scrooge in this video interview, put together by The Old Vic.

A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic carries an important message for the festive season

A Christmas Carol is a story rich with meaning. Since its publication, it has been used as a fable about the importance of charity and social responsibility as well as the dangers of hoarding wealth for its own sake. In an interview with The Guardian, Jack Thorne spoke about how the message of A Christmas Carol remains relevant;

It’s been relevant since that word “austerity” came into politics a decade ago. Hidden behind that word is a lot of prejudice about working-class people. Scrooge is beset by that prejudice, and removing it is the most important thing in the play. At the same time, we’re all Scrooges. We all have responsibility for the world and the damage we do. Maybe with a bit of self-reflection, we can change.

The Guardian, 6th December 2020

To take action in-line with this valuable message, each year the Old Vic raises money for a selected poverty charity, through bucket donations, text-to-donate and online donations. Audiences are welcomed at the end of each performance to donate and, with so much good-will and festive cheer imparted to them by the production, hundreds of them dig deep every night. In 2022, the Old Vic are collecting for London-based food poverty charity City Harvest. With far too many people unable to afford that enormous roast turkey at Christmas time, this is an excellent and noble cause for them to choose and matches perfectly with the morals of A Christmas Carol.

The ensemble of A Christmas Carol dance on stage at the Old Vic

Christmas, more than any time of year, is about giving. It is a time to reflect on the things we have, and what we can share with others. A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic wraps this message up in a production that is spectacular, interactive, heart-warming and so full of Christmas cheer that no bah-humbug could possibly walk away unchanged. This, perhaps, is the most important factor to the production’s success and why in 5 short years, it has established itself as an unmissable, yearly tradition for the festive season in London.

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