Review: A Remarkable Turn by Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln in A Christmas Carol
London's Old Vic streams its Tony-nominated production worldwide.
Often times watching online theater can feel like a consolation prize – rather than reveling in the story you're seeing unfurl, you're reminded over the course of two hours just how much has been made impossible by the pandemic.
It takes a special show to overcome this rather hefty obstacle and deliver a genuine sense of wonder through pixels rather than dynamic, live entertainment – many have tried and fallen short, especially in the UK where the ability to get casts on stage together seems slightly more feasible.
One production on its feet is London's Old Vic's A Christmas Carol, which wowed Broadway audiences during its 2019 festive run (remember Christmas 2019? When we could hug our family?) – going on to pick up a string of Tony Award nominations earlier this autumn. Director Matthew Warchus brings it back for its fourth spell at London's Old Vic theatre – but this time without any audience members except a panoply of silent technicians (one stagehand even getting a fun cameo).
The show is based on Charles Dickens's ghoulish festive caper about the old miser, Scrooge (Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead), being transformed into a do-gooder by three very punctual ghosts arriving on successive early hours on Christmas eve. Rocking from past to the future, Scrooge's sorrow-filled life is laid out with melancholic meticulousness – an episode of This Is Your Life followed by the slightly less cheery This Is Your Death.
Like the camera operators at the Old Vic, Thorne has a lot of fun shifting focus – Scrooge's family circumstances are brought vividly to life by fleshing out the roles of both the penniless Scrooge senior (Michael Rouse, competently doubling as the doomed Jacob Marley) and sister Fan (Melissa Allan, bringing a worn warmth to the role of the tragic sibling). Scrooge isn't corrupted by his obsession with wealth – it's the wealth that's there to greet him when all others seem to have turned him away. Deprived of a soul-saving source of love, the man's almost an addict. Warchus has star Lincoln sweating and mopping greasy flecks of hair as he balances his dusty books.
It's not the story Dickens certainly had the idea of writing, but one that certainly gels relatively comprehensively – the oppressive gloom of Hugh Vanstone's lighting placing Lincoln's Scrooge against a backdrop of despair – even the hanging lamps on Rob Howell's set only go so far to brighten up the stage. Much more seismic work is done by Christopher Nightingale's music – a medley of festive tunes that underscore most scenes, while some adept bellringing by the ensemble is almost hypnotic.
Thorne's vision for the play is helped by a remarkable turn by Lincoln – stepping out of his Walking Dead grungy outfits and into the lavish yet matted silks of Howell's costumes. Younger than others who have taken on the role – Broadway's Campbell Scott is now close to 60 – Lincoln infuses Scrooge with a bitterness derived not from old age but from gnarled cynicism, screwed into his heart by the pain of loss and rejected affection.
The cast went through all the necessary trials and checks to make sure the production is safe, with Zoom editing trickery used to give the show a greater sense of intimacy, even when characters have to stay the necessary distance apart.
There are no two ways about it – even though Dickens' text is laced with elements of the supernatural, the thing that is truly spell-binding is the wizardry done by Simon Baker, overseeing sound and video alongside associate Jay Jones. Frames are masked, cropped and overlaid, turning a stage spectacle into a tapestry of shots, cross-faded and spliced to conjure up Scrooge's mystical evening.
The show isn't just a live-stream experience, it's something altogether different, a hybrid piece that tries to push the boundaries of both art forms. We certainly lose the magisterial glamour of the Old Vic's auditorium, but gain an intimate look at one of literature's most iconic characters.