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Carols for All?

I’ve been reading play versions of A Christmas Carol – as you do, in February, obviously. And it strikes me that for anyone wanting to programme it for 2020 or 2021, be they professional or amateur, there can never have been such a range of interpretations to choose from.

“When Charles Dickens published his ‘little Christmas book” in 1843 it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage” writes Piers Torday in an author’s note to his 2019 adaptation for Wilton’s Music Hall. And Michael Billington notes in a 2017 Guardian review of David Edgar’s version for the RSC that there have been 250 film and stage versions in the last seventy years alone.

Edgar tells me that the ever popular novel has been reworked for each generation across the 176 years since it was written. He regards his, which focuses on the plight of the Cratchits as the “austerity version”

Piers Torday, on the other hand, approached it through his discovery that, although Dickens campaigned for the rights of women, his treatment of his own wife Catherine, mother of his ten children, was shocking by any standards anywhere and at any time. He wrote hideously cruel and unfeeling things about her to his friends in letters and tried to have her committed to an asylum while he enjoyed an affair with Ellen Ternan. And he was writing this fifteen years before 1857 The Married Women’s Property Act decreed that a man no longer acquired everything his wife owned.

Torday’s version which sat very atmospherically in Wilton’s Music Hall, presents Marley and Scrooge as dead brothers-in-law. The business is now in the hands of the misanthropic Fan Scrooge, widow of the former and sister of the latter. It’s a neat way of feminising the whole story and I Ioved her feisty irrascibilty and irritation with the ghost of her husband who haunts her at the beginning.

Of course this wasn’t the first female Scrooge although it went much further than its predecessors. Take the the one directed by Guy Retallack at Bridge House Theatre Penge last Christmas.  My three star thoughts on 28 November for Musical Theatre Review:

“ Rachel Izen plays the reformed curmudgeonly miser as a man. I had assumed that we were going to see Mrs Scrooge which would have been an interesting take on the narrative … but for much of the show’s duration she is unconvincing.”

Another recent version of A Christmas Carol is Jack Thorne’s  for The Old Vic in 2017. It uses a narrator, lots of carols, and a cast of 15 to tell the story without straying too far from the novel. There’s a lot of joy, tradition and “feel good” is this take on the work. It’s frisky but doesn’t run with any sort of agenda of its own – unlike Steven Knight’s recent three episode TV version.

Every inch a relatively scary ghost story (in contrast to most of the stage versions which never forget they’re family Christmas shows, along with everything else)  this leisurely take on a pretty short novel presents a youngish quite personable Scrooge in the shape of Guy Pearce. “As far from Alastair Sim as you could get” writes Knight in the Sunday Times.

See what I mean about choice and flexibility?

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale Piers Torday, Nick Hern Books, 2019

 A Christmas Carol:Charles Dickens A new version by Jack Thorne, 2017

 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, A new version by David Edgar, 2017

 This is an abridged version of an article which appears in the February/March 2020 issue of Sardines Magazine



Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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