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A Christmas Carol review: Christopher Ecclestone excels as Scrooge in the Dickens classic

The Old Vic's annual production is as wonderful as ever, writes Simon Button

5.0 rating

By Simon Button

Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge in The Old Vic's A Christmas Carol (Image: Hugo Glendinning)
Christopher Eccleston as Scrooge in The Old Vic's A Christmas Carol (Image: Hugo Glendinning)

Since 2017, the Old Vic’s annual staging of A Christmas Carol has become as much a part of the festive season for return visitors as turkey, Brussels sprouts, mince pies, mulled wine and goodwill to all men. 

You have to pay for wine but mince pies (and satsumas) are handed out by the ushers as you enter the auditorium. In the second act there’s a giant turkey swinging over the cast’s heads. Sprouts descend from the rafters on tiny parachutes. 

Fruit and veg are sent down linen runnels from the upper circle to the stage as a reformed Scrooge makes Christmas dinner for those he’s previously been miserly towards. And those sat on stage are given strings of sausages to hand over for the feast.

There’s music too: carols and bell-ringing, and a wonderful version of ‘Silent Night’ that combines the two to deeply moving effect.

With sudsy snow falling on much of the audience (be sure to cup a hand over your drink), it’s enough to send even the biggest bah humbug out into the street full of festive cheer. Charles Dickens, who wrote the story partly to highlight the plight of the poor, would be chuffed to see people generously donating to City Harvest, a charity which helps feed the capital’s needy, on their way out.

Frances McNamee as Belle, Alastair Parker as Fezziwig, Gemma Knight Jones as Ghost of Christmas Present, Julie Jupp as Ghost of Christmas Past and Samuel Townsend as Fred (Image: Manuel Harlan)

Tight-fisted Ebenezer has previously been played by Rhys Ifans, Stephen Tompkinson, Andrew Lincoln (via live broadcast during Covid lockdown), Stephen Mangan and Owen Teale. Now it’s the turn of Christopher Eccleston, whose imposing presence and stern features (which only crack when he smiles) make him perfect for the part.

He’s expectedly excellent as the crotchety, menacing old miser who covets money and can’t stomach sentiment. What’s more surprising is how playfully he slips into his younger, more hopeful self and – having been shown the error of his ways by the Ghosts of Christmas, Past, Present and Future – how giddy he becomes. When he does a little jig to ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ you want to jump for joy with him.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is mostly faithful to Dickens’ novella, although the ghosts are soft-spoken females rather than terrifying spectres and Scrooge’s father gets a backstory.

But it’s still pretty scary, with Ebenezer’s dead business partner Jacob Marley sliding along a runway that divides the stalls trailing chains behind him. Visually it’s stunning, thanks to moody lighting by Hugh Vanstone and Rob Howell’s mostly muted costumes. 

And Matthew Warchus’s direction is pacy (the running time is two hours including an interval) and poignant, leading us from darkness into light whilst underpinning the core message that the haves should look after the have-nots. It’s not just those soapy snowflakes and that beautifully-performed ‘Silent Night’ that will have you in tears. And instead of a Christmas party at Number 10, I’d suggest our government take a staff day out to The Old Vic.

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic, London, until 6 January. Get tickets here.