A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic

The Old Vic theatre building, all lit up in a deep blue colour, with red letters above the entrance saying A Christmas Carol.

Traditionally Christmas lasts for 12 days, and to some extent that remained true for my mother and I, as last weekend we did take our decorations and tree down and packed it all away, as it was a convenient time to do it.

However, the festivities didn’t actually conclude until a few days later, because we took the opportunity to see A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic on Tuesday, which at the time of posting is running for one more week until January 19.

We had actually booked to go in January last year, but sadly had to miss it due to illness. So this time around, as soon as I became aware of the date for the audio described performance, I booked it again well in advance, crossing my fingers tightly that we wouldn’t get ill this time. And thankfully, touch wood, we seem to have escaped any colds so far this winter, which is a relief!

So we did finally get to see it, and had a touch tour and audio description as well. The play had been getting rave reviews everywhere, so we were really hoping that it would be worth the wait. And it absolutely was!

So I wanted to tell you a bit about it, without spoiling anything in case you want to see it (and you should!). If you can’t get to the last few dates this year, do look out in case in returns to The Old Vic again next Christmas.

As usual, all opinions are my own here. This post isn’t sponsored or endorsed by anybody connected with the theatre or the show, and my mother and I paid to see it out of our own money. I just wanted to share my experience, so I hope you enjoy reading about it!

As soon as we entered the auditorium for the touch tour, we could tell we were in for something special. The stage itself has an unusual layout, taking the form of a t-shaped cross that fills the room. The long vertical part at the bottom is a walkway, stretching all the way down through the centre of the stalls to the back, and we were able to walk it to get a sense of how long it was. The upper part of the cross, meanwhile, takes up the area where the regular stage in the theatre would normally be. And there are various elements hidden within the walkway that are revealed and used during the show. It’s a very clever design.

Furthermore, the audience are seated all around the stage, rather than just in front of it. So in addition to seating on each side of the long walkway, some audience members are also positioned in the quadrants around the shorter walkway going across the top (Mum and I were seated in the lower left corner of that area in row K). And others are arranged right across the back of the stage area, facing towards the stalls. Plus of course there are people in the upper circles looking down on it all. So everybody gets a good view. Even if you’re at the very back of the stalls, there are various points where characters come right past you, so you get a close look.

Going on to the stage was, as always with these tours, a real treat. We got to look at various props, including a large coffin and one of Scrooge’s safe boxes, plus lanterns, soft toys, fake vegetables and more. Getting to examine costumes and props like this is always useful, as it gives visually impaired people like myself a greater understanding and appreciation of how they look, because with my eyesight I can’t see the smaller details during the show. Even with my monocular (my little telescope), which does come in very handy during the show, I can only see so much. So being able to recall things from the tour, in addition to the audio description, really helps to fill in the gaps. I know I’ve explained that before, but I like to repeat it in case anyone reading this is new to my blog and isn’t aware.

Incidentally, the audio description during the show was very well done as always, and ensured I didn’t miss anything. Among their various access services, The Old Vic provide their audio description in-house, set up with the help of VocalEyes as part of the See A Voice project. The Old Vic are also renovating their building this year, to improve their accessibility for wheelchair users and install more ladies toilets, as part of their OV Tomorrow scheme. So that’s great news, and it will be worth keeping an eye on their progress.

The other wonderful aspect of the tour was that we got to meet a few of the actors. Considering they had done a matinee performance earlier that day, and were now preparing for the evening, it was very generous of them to do this.

In particular, we met Leo Lake, one of 4 children who share the role of Tiny Tim (the others being Lara Mehmet, Luka Petrovic and Lenny Rush). And it’s significant because they all have a disability (Leo is visually impaired for example). The fact that young disabled actors are being given an amazing opportunity to perform in a huge production in such an iconic venue is absolutely fantastic. There’s often a lot of concerns among the disability community about the lack of disabled actors playing disabled roles (as abled actors are often chosen instead), so this is a really positive step. Other good examples I saw last year included the play Libby’s Eyes, written by a visually impaired author and starring a visually impaired actress, and the episode of Doctor Who with blind actress Ellie Wallwork in a leading role.

Luke was a delight to chat to, he was very friendly and happy to tell us a bit about himself. And his performance in the show was nothing short of amazing. There was no uncertainty and no fluffed lines, he seemed very relaxed about it all. His timing, delivery and emotional expression was spot on, tugging at everyone’s heartstrings and earning him the biggest cheers and applause of the night. He’s got a bright future ahead of him if that performance is anything to go by, he’s a very capable young lad.

We also got to meet Michael Rouse, who plays a couple of roles including Jacob Marley. He was also very nice and took pleasure in talking to us, and we were able to examine his Marley costume closely, particularly the jacket and the chains attached to it. And we got to meet one of the ladies from the ensemble cast too, many of whom play multiple roles.

So the tour increased our excitement for the show even more, yet it didn’t spoil any of the surprises either. Which was good, as there are a lot of fun surprises in the production.

From the outset, the show is very immersive, with the whole audience made to feel part of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a pantomime, there’s no calling out and stuff like that. But you really are encouraged to feel like you’re sharing in the experience with the characters, rather than just passively watching it, and that makes it feel all the more enjoyable.

The atmosphere is delightfully festive from the moment you enter the auditorium to take your seat, with cast members out mince pies and oranges, kindly donated by their sponsors Waitrose I believe. The mince pies were a tasty treat, and my mother remarked that her orange was one of the nicest she’d ever had. Even the audience upstairs didn’t miss out, with characters on the stage throwing oranges right up into the circles for them to catch!

And during the show itself, even though most of the action takes place on the stage as you’d expect, the whole auditorium is used, adding to the immersive feel. Characters not only make frequent use of the long central walkway, but sometimes appear elsewhere too, even occasionally interacting with audience members during the show (including me at one point!). There are also a couple of occasions where fake snow falls over the audience (but it quickly dissolves, so you don’t walk out covered in it!). And the big set piece at the end uses the entire room in a very ingenious and entertaining fashion to bring in all the props, but I’ll say no more on that! So you really do feel acknowledged and part of it. It’s not just a play, it’s an experience.

But what of the actual story and the performances? Truth be told, I’ve never read A Christmas Carol or seen any of the TV and film adaptations (other than the Blackadder and Muppet versions, which don’t really count!). I know the general story, of course, but I didn’t have anything to compare the show with, and therefore didn’t go in with any expectations. Mum, on the other hand, did watch a couple of old film versions of the story that were on TV over Christmas, so there probably was more of a benchmark in her mind, as she has more familiarity with it.

And we both loved the show. The story has been wonderfully adapted by Jack Thorne (who also wrote Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, which I saw in 2017). It’s the story everybody knows and loves, it feels very festive and traditional, it has a well-balanced combination of drama and emotion mixed with fun and humour, and it hasn’t been unnecessarily modernised or altered. Indeed, it doesn’t need to be changed, as the issues and messages at the heart of it are, sadly, still topical and relevant today. Which is why they’ve been raising money for The Felix Project, an organisation that collects fresh, nutritious, surplus food that cannot be sold, and donates it to charities to feed vulnerable people. It’s a great shame that charities like this have to exist in the first place, so it’s lovely that The Old Vic are helping to raise awareness and support.

Stephen Tompkinson is fantastic as Scrooge in the show, conveying his demeanour and emotions perfectly. The ghosts, all played by women, are also very powerful, and their interactions with the resistant and stubborn Scrooge are very effective. The gradual change in Scrooge’s attitude is handled very well without being rushed, and you cannot help warming to him during his journey of discovery. And all of the other members of the cast also do a superb job, it really is an ensemble piece. Everyone seems to enjoy being a part of it, and you can understand why.

The music was absolutely delightful as well. It’s all performed live, it’s beautifully arranged, and it adds to the atmosphere without being intrusive. The main musicians were sat in an upper box to the side of the stage, but many cast members also played music on stage, and one or two even went upstairs to join the musicians for a bit. A number of Christmas carols are also performed by the cast, partly to keep things flowing and feeling festive during the speedy and well-choreographed scene changes.

Particularly impressive were the hand bells played by the cast at various points. With each person holding a couple of finely tuned bells, one in each hand, one can only imagine the amount of practice required to get everyone playing in the right order and in harmony. It’s been worth it though, because it sounds amazing, and is very moving at times.

The show is visually beautiful too, with lovely costumes that look very authentic. And the lighting plays a major role too, with lots of Victorian style lanterns filling the ceiling. And they’re not just there to look pretty (although they certainly do). They actually produce some lovely sequences and patterns at appropriate points, some very subtle and some very noticeable. So a lot of work has gone into that aspect of it s well.

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So all in all, it’s an incredible show that I highly recommend and would happily see again. It’s going to be hard for any other show I see this year to top that, I think. I’m also very grateful to The Old Vic for putting on the audio described performance (like they did when I saw A Monster Calls last year), and I hope the work to improve their accessibility goes well. I don’t know what show I’ll see there next, but I have no doubt I’ll be back at some point soon.

Also, if you’d like another perspective of the show from another disabled audience member, check out my fellow blogger Shona’s review, where she discusses wheelchair access at the venue.

So thank you for reading this post, I hope you found it interesting. And if you do go to the show, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

A tree with thick branches covered in lights stands across the road from The Old Vic theatre building, which is all lit up in a deep blue colour, with red letters above the entrance saying A Christmas Carol.

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger & Youtuber with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

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