Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: A Christmas Carol; Julius Caesar

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: A Christmas Carol; Julius Caesar

Article excerpt

Maximum Victoriana at the Old Vic for Matthew Warchus's A Christmas Carol. Even before we reach our seats we're accosted by bonneted wenches handing out mince pies. Merchants in top hats roam the aisles proffering satsumas, which they call, with accurate Victorian incorrectness, 'oranges'.

The guts of the theatre have been ripped out for this show. A slender catwalk stretches 40 yards from the rear of the stage to the farthest wall of the auditorium, with the seats gathered around this runway in odd little clumps. The narrow performing area leaves no room for scenery, so Dickens's London is suggested by dozens of oblong lanterns dangling overhead, like mini-Tardises, all glowing amber, as if recently nuked. Then a soapy blizzard starts. White suds flayed into aerated granules tumble down from on high and settle on our shoulders like plump drifts of snow.

At the heart of this visual feast is Rhys Ifans's Scrooge. An easy choice for a popular thesp. It's almost impossible to muff the role. It moistens the tear ducts of the Kleenex-prone, and it contains one of the most satisfying transformations in all literature. Facially, Ifans seems overly contemporary. His long blond hair is bolt-upright, like Boris Becker in the electric chair. His partially shaven jowls look a bit Woodstock, and he booms out his lines in a Home Counties wobbleboard voice that might be better suited to toffee commercials. He can certainly capture Scrooge's emotions (both of them: aggressive nastiness and aggressive generosity), but his Welshness has gone missing, his sense of mischief, his elusive and sinuous naughtiness. By nature, Ifans is a bandit, an outlaw, not a religious convert.

In the early scenes he's charming as an ambitious romantic with an eye for the ladies. He wins a job at a funeral parlour by correctly predicting how best to 'prioritise' two competing customers. ('Prioritise' was a rare departure from Victorian authenticity.) As he moves into finance, he finds his moral voice and declares that debt instils discipline. But when he sees the suffering caused by bankruptcy he suffers a full Rada breakdown: hunched shoulders, wracking sobs. It's decent enough but unexceptional. Only at the end does Ifans shine through in his own colours. As Scrooge embraces virtue, he finds it deeply troubling. 'I love Christmas,' he yells, and then does a double take at his transformation. This is hilarious and true to the character. Less satisfying is the self-parodying note of the closing scenes. …

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