Theatre review: A Christmas Carol

Forget about the other Melbourne theatre shows on offer, with David Wenham as Scrooge, this is the one to catch!

A true Christmas miracle is happening on the stage of the Comedy Theatre this holiday season.

The Old Vic Theatre Company’s celebrated production of Charles Dickens’ classic yuletide tale A Christmas Carol is being presented by GB Entertainment in a glorious production starring David Wenham as the archetypal miser Ebenezer Scrooge. This dark, delicate, and dazzling play with music presents the tale we all know but infuses new life into the story through an astonishing display of brilliant theatricality and accomplished emotional performances from an outstanding local cast.

If you’re not moved by this production, then your name must be Scrooge.

Playwright Jack Thorne, of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame, has done this adaptation and he doesn’t shy away from the darker themes in the first act. We learn about Scrooge’s tortured childhood at the hands of his cruel alcoholic father (a commanding Anthony Harkin) and the emotional torment he endures at the loss of his first love Belle (a radiant Sarah Morrison). After being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, Scrooge has an epiphany and decides to change his avaricious ways and fully embrace life. The timeless messages of redemption and empathy intrinsic to this story are articulated with incredible power and emotional weight in this production; it’s a cathartic theatrical experience.

Wenham is a superb Scrooge, less overwrought than previous iterations and more filled with a kind of crusty stale venom. He’s dismissive, demanding, rude and initially seems more annoyed by the presence of his ghostly visitors than afraid. The moments with his younger self (Cameron Bajraktarevic-Hayward) and Tiny Tim (played by Theo Watson-Bonnice on opening night) are particularly touching. Wenham fully embraces Scrooge’s change of heart and makes you believe that anyone can change just by the sparkle in his eyes and the spring in his step. It’s a wonderous transformation.

Debra Lawrance, Samantha Morley, Emily Nkomo. Photo: Jeff Busby

There is a magical atmosphere from the moment you enter the theatre. The cast is already assembled on stage, singing Christmas carols, eating, drinking, and socialising. Mince pies and other treats are handed out to the audience and music is a constant presence throughout the play. A small band is placed in a box in the dress circle and at several points the cast sing gorgeous choral arrangements of classic Christmas carols, often adding a moving emotional depth to the story. This Christmas Carol is very, well, Christmassy, (yes it snows on stage) but never in a saccharine way. There is a comforting warmth and charming sentimentality that radiates from the stage, and you can’t help being swept up in it all.   

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The prominent visual motif in the set and lighting design is a glowing lantern. Dozens are strewn about the theatre, creating a celestial patchwork across the ceiling, and large piles of discarded lanterns flank both sides of the stage. The ensemble often appears dimly lit by the glow of their lanterns and in one particularly thrilling moment a giant lantern swings out over the heads of the audience. There are many more magical moments of clever stagecraft, but this is not the place to spoil them; they need to be experienced live. However, I will say that there is a moment in act two in which the performance spills out to every corner of the auditorium and there is audience participation on another level that left the opening night crowd in raptures. 

Melbourne audiences looking for a good night at the theatre are spoiled for choice this summer. But you can forget the other blockbuster shows about a grown-up boy wizard, America’s forgotten founding father, and a subterranean stalker in a mask: A Christmas Carol is the best of the bunch. This exquisite and heart-warming show is truly one for all ages and is the perfect introduction to the transformative power of live theatre.

A Christmas Carol
An Old Vic Production
Adapted by Jack Thorne
Conceived and Directed by Matthew Warchus
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

A Christmas Carol will be performed until 30 December 2022.

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.