REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Arts Theatre) ★★★

Dust off your baubles and start Googling how to make eggnog – Christmas is nearly here! And to celebrate, London is once again home to an assortment of productions telling the second most famous festive story of them all (after the one about the donkey and the manger…).

Running at the Arts Theatre from now until the 12th January 2019, “A Christmas Carol” tells the classic story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and his encounters with three spooks on Christmas Eve, who try to teach him the error of his ways by showing him his past, his present, and also his potential future if he doesn’t buck his ideas up and stop being such a miserable so-and-so. The timeless story celebrates its 175th birthday this year, since its initial publication in 1843, and remains as charming and engaging as ever.

Rather than being a fully cast and staged production of the tale, director and creator Tom Cairns’ version is a one-man show which has legendary thespian Simon Callow effectively narrating the novella to the audience. At 80 minutes in length, the show moves along at a comfortable pace, never dragging, and wisely omits an interval which would break up the story unnecessarily.

It’s a great marriage of actor and material, with Callow’s obvious love of language blending really well with Charles Dickens‘ storytelling. The script stays largely faithful to Dickens’ original text, and Callow is able to bring out a charming warmth and humour in the words which is lovely to watch. Callow is on great form, clearly relishing the story and the character, and excelling in conveying Scrooge’s early bitterness and later enlightenment as he takes the audience through the story. He does particularly well in the dialogue scenes, reading for multiple characters without losing clarity for the audience.

Ultimately however, “A Christmas Carol” feels more like a beloved grandpa reading a bedtime story than a fully theatrical production. It would benefit from having more visuals on stage and more frequent use of projections. There are moments where the lighting and sound are used really well to create moments of either suspense or joy, but often Callow is just in a large dark space, with only empty chairs and a candle for company. A large square see-through screen moves from time to time, but adds nothing to the staging. Snowfall is effective but brief, as is a shimmering ghostly curtain which moves in from the wings on occasion. But mostly it’s a dark, bleak space. While this ties nicely in with the empty nature of Scrooge’s life, it doesn’t always make the stage very interesting to look at. Although it does force the audience to use their imaginations and focus solely on Callow’s performance, the language, and the narrative, so maybe it’s deliberate.

As a performed monologue, it is engaging and very well delivered. As a festive production, it doesn’t quite hit the spot. “A Christmas Carol” should leave you wanting to run through the streets, warmed to the bottom of your heart and wanting to do good deeds for total strangers. This production leaves your brain impressed with Callow’s performance, but your heart lacking a little bit of Christmas magic.

Reviewed by Rob Bartley


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