A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Bridge Theatre, London SE1
At the moment we all need the reassurance provided by signs of the familiar and the normal. Fortunately, Nicholas Hytner and the Bridge Theatre know exactly what’s required. Their production of A Christmas Carol, playing live on stage in front of an auditorium scattered, rather than packed, with delighted members of the public, is a classy treat. It is no comfort blanket though. Hytner’s show is a deceptively simple retelling that sticks close to Dickens’ text but makes well-judged use of theatrical craft and of its A-list cast to deliver something original memorable.
The start turn is, of course, the great Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge. However, this is an ensemble piece, and its success relies on the interaction between all three actors, with Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo alongside. The cast slip in and out of their parts, supplying the narration that propels the story, with power and clarity. The events and characters are taken seriously, but enlivened with well-judged moments of 21st century distance that enhance rather than overwhelm. It is enough to say that anyone who has yet to see Mr Russell Beale showing his disco moves or his country dancing capabilities is in for a treat. The production conjures moments of theatrical delight, transforming Patsy Ferran into The Ghost of Christmas Past with a box that bathes her face in an unearthly light, shooting smoke jets from the stage and back-projecting scene changes on a set made of stacked trunks. It also makes the story seem new, which is not easy to achieve at the best of times and particularly this year, when this is not even the only Christmas Carol featuring Russell Beale. The production feels fresh, and returning to the original work highlights elements that do not always feature in the popular memory, not least Scrooge’s apprentice days and failure in love.
Russell Beale’s Scrooge is trapped beneath layers of concealed despair, and then delightfully frolicsome when released. Ferran is a lively presence as Bob Crachit among others, and Figueiredo is fearsome as Marley and funny as The Ghost of Christmas Present. They seem to be having fun together, and there is a powerful sense of what can happen when people come together in the same space to create. A Christmas Carol draws us all the way in, wiping much of its familiarity away and reaffirming the power of a story. It’s a great way to forget what we’re missing.