Christmas has arrived a month early at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, with Jack Thorne’s version of the Dickensian classic A Christmas Carol delighting the head, heart, and senses. Winner of five Tony awards (for solid reason), and powered by a brilliant star cast with David Wenham at the helm, this production is elaborate, creatively loaded, and all round flawless.
The festivities begin before the play does, with the cast and musicians setting the mood through light-hearted interactive performance. The audience, drawn into the spirit of the season with apples and mandarins and general festive cheer, are then introduced to the stark contrast of the protagonist, miser Ebenezer Scrooge (David Wenham), whose brand is his disdain for Christmas and his shocking ability to wall himself off from concern or compassion for the affairs of others. Scrooge is visited by the tormented ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley, and then by the three spirits of Christmas (past, present, and future), who work together over the course of the story to pry open his closed heart and restore him into connection with his family, his employees, and his neighbours.
A Christmas Carol, as Charles Dickens wrote it, is only a short novella – just over 60 pages long, often read in a single sitting by readers of all ages. But it is one of his most beloved and well-known works, and has been adapted and performed endlessly since the 1840s, when it was first published. This 2022 production uses a blend of sophisticated creative structures, tools, and ideas to bring Dickens’ London to life in a way that makes suspension of belief inevitable; you cannot help but be transported into the heart of that vibe, and remain there for the duration of the show.
Christopher Nightingale’s music, including arrangements of a whole collection of well-loved Christmas carols, is ethereal, with the masterful use of a tuned set of handbells as a particular highlight. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design is also otherworldly, grounded in a sky of little lanterns and erupting into haunting effects with a bigger version manoeuvred by the Christmas ghosts. A particularly breathtaking moment was when Scrooge was taken to the scene of his own funeral in the future, and the lighting somehow embodied death itself – all colour was drained out of the live scene, and the visitor Scrooge was clearly seen as an outsider, witnessing the lifelessness of his own memory.
There are many aspects of this production that will have attendees enthralled, most of them centred on brilliant creative choices. This production’s take on the traditional focus of this story, the social and moral commentary around the meaning of Christmas and how to reach out to one’s neighbours when one enjoys a place of privilege and power, feels refreshing as well. The somewhat one-dimensional judgment against the “old” Scrooge seems appropriately diminished, in favour of expanding perspectives extending compassion towards him, fleshing out why he was how he was, and showing a realistic bridge to help him step from who he had become to who he could become. His relationships – with his father, his sister Little Fan, his former lover Belle, and his employee Bob Cratchit, all shed light on Ebenezer Scrooge the whole person, the hard working, ambitious man who liked to stay in his lane and focus on his goals even before all that went to misanthropic extremes. Some of the other characters also are fleshed out in satisfying depth, such as Tiny Tim Cratchit, played skilfully by Theo Watson-Bonnice, presenting this traditional character of sympathy as a strong and spirited influence in his own right.
All in all, this production is the perfect show to get one into the mood for a self-reflective Christmas: it is a perfect blend of the mystical, the magical, the moral, the traditional, the festive, the aesthetic, and above all, the human.