Review: A Christmas Carol, Bristol Old Vic
Following last year's record-breaking run, Charles Dickens’ timeless tale A Christmas Carol has returned to Bristol Old Vic this year with a new cast and a reworked production adapted by Tom Morris. I didn't see last year's show but it's been described as the 'ultimate festive feast for all the family', so I couldn't wait to take my seat in the packed historic theatre on Wednesday evening.
Making his Bristol Old Vic main stage debut, John Hopkins is Scrooge, and he certainly revels in playing arguably the most iconic of all Christmas characters. An accomplished stage and TV actor, (his other work includes Midsomer Murders, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and BBC’s Poldark), Hopkins commands the stage with a truly superb performance. It is quite something to watch as he convincingly transforms from a completely cold-hearted and miserly 'Bah Humbug!' character to one who is full of empathy and emotion.
There is support across the board from an excellent cast, the most notable of which is deaf actor Stephen Collins as Bob Cratchit. Using British Sign Language lends a different dynamic and a unique way of expressing emotion on stage. When Scrooge eventually acknowledges this and overcomes his impatience to learn how to communicate properly with his employee, it is a hugely touching and memorable moment. Mofetoluwa Akande makes her professional debut in a beautiful portrayal of Belle and Rebecca Hayes is a suitably haunting Little Fan. It's testament to the talented cast that they all (except for Hopkins) play more than one role yet this doesn't detract from the portrayal of any of the characters.
There is plenty of humour too, with dry witty asides to the audience from Hopkins, and some very funny lines in a sharp script from Tom Morris. Another clever touch is selecting younger members of the audience to play both Tiny Tim and a young Scrooge, and this interaction creates almost a pantomime feel at times. When composer Gwyneth Herbert (who is responsible for the fantastic contemporary score) takes to the stage with the Rubber Wellies folk band for the opening of the second half, she cleverly uses notes gathered from the audience to improvise a song about what Christmas in Bristol means to them. This is a lovely moment of community and one of the ways that this production is just that little bit different from the norm.
The stripped back scaffolding-based set (by innovative designer Tom Rogers) is a brave move but one that works well and it is purposefully different to the classic images of Victorian London that most people associate with this story. It is intentional to show that this is a theatrical presentation, and I really liked that raw honesty - nothing was hidden from the audience and I think all of us watching felt more invested in the show as a result.
In brilliant contrast, the exaggerated shapes of the ensemble costumes (by Jennie Falconer and Louise Nipper) lend a gothic 'side-show' style to the production and as Scrooge continues on his journey from darkness into the light, their costumes gradually become brighter too. And there is literally an explosion of colour on the set and above the audience at the end! I won't spoil the surprise, but it is a fantastic way to celebrate, and one which further emphasises the feeling that we have all been through this life-changing journey together.
Verdict: This updated production is a charming and joyful re-imagining of the classic tale. It has everything you could want from a Christmas show including some very catchy songs, a brilliant cast and an eye-catching set. A Christmas Carol may have been written by Charles Dickens over 175 years ago, but it still feels like a story that is very much of our time.
A Christmas Carol is at Bristol Old Vic until 12th January 2020. Find more information and book tickets here.
Disclaimer: I was offered two complimentary tickets in return for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. Photos by Ben Robins and Geraint Lewis.