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Sunday, December 5, 2021

A Christmas Carol, review: Stephen Mangan is an entertaining grump as a Scrooge with daddy issues

It can certainly be said of the Old Vic that they know how to do Christmas. Matthew Warchus’s Dickensian charmer, returning for a fifth year, is an immersive treat from the off: audience members are handed mince pies and satsumas, and entertained by an accordion-led band, while Victorian top-hatted actors do a merry jig. But this socially conscious show ensures you eat your vegetables, too. Thankfully, it has the nous to introduce its Brussels sprouts from the ceiling on mini parachutes (in a joyful feast scene), and to accompany its lectures with transporting music.

Rather like Doctor Who, the production’s lead constantly regenerates. It began in 2017 with Rhys Ifans as Scrooge, succeeded by Stephen Tompkinson, Paterson Joseph and Andrew Lincoln. The latest incarnation is Stephen Mangan, who looks the part with his shock of white hair and stooped form in a threadbare dressing gown. However he’s more grumpy than truly intimidating. When told that he’ll be visited by three spirits, he wryly mutters, “I’d rather not be.”

Yet Mangan stresses that Scrooge sees himself as a realist. He believes in his worldview and is determined not to learn any lessons, nor to accept responsibility. He’s like a corrupt CEO trying to wriggle out of liability.

It means the journey to redemption is shortened – this Scrooge isn’t monstrous, just misguided – but fits well enough with Jack Thorne’s tender-hearted adaptation. As with the current vogue for Hollywood films depicting villains’ tragic origin stories, Thorne’s Scrooge is shaped by childhood trauma. Yes, this miser has daddy issues, namely an abusive, drunken, debt-ridden father who yanks him out of school to earn money. Before Scrooge can save Tiny Tim, he must first heal his own inner child.

It gives Dickens’s tale an effective psychological framework and interestingly complicates the happy ending. Redemption has still to be earned, and Scrooge’s realisation is, in one respect, tragically too late: he’s missed the chance to have a family. The most poignant moment comes when he tracks down former sweetheart Belle (an excellent Karen Fishwick) and reflects on what might have been.

The trade-off is fewer supernatural chills. Jacob Marley makes a terrifying entrance, dragging his endless chain down the catwalk-style stage. However, the subsequent ghosts are more eccentric therapists nudging Scrooge towards his breakthrough. Warchus does create some spine-tingling moments, though, with the striking of the hour and a wildly swinging lantern, and by cloaking the final spirit so that we can imagine the worst.

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