Review of Jack Thorne's 'A Christmas Carol'

March 30, 2022

By Diane Savage 

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

I attended the Dickens Universe (virtually) for the first-time last summer and spent a delightful week listening to lectures and participating in discussions about, and watching movies based on, A Christmas Carol.  I learned that there were hundreds of adaptations of A Christmas Carol for theater, film, and even opera, and I watched several of these adaptations, including the 1951 film version starring Alastair Sim (arguably the best of the film versions); The Passion of Scrooge, a film version of the opera by the same name; Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, one of many animated versions; Dr. Who’s Christmas Carol, an episode of the British science fiction television program, Dr. Who; and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol starring Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.  Earlier in the year I attended a lecture by Professor Marty Gould, from whom I learned that many other films and books were inspired by A Christmas Carol, including It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Groundhog Day.  All of these adaptations of A Christmas Carol feature a main character who is forced, usually by a supernatural intervention, to examine his life and who ultimately realizes that choosing goodness is the only path to redemption.

After spending six days studying A Christmas Carol, I was eager to see the play again and was excited when I learned that Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the story was coming to San Francisco for the holidays.  My husband and I decided to take our grandchildren to see the production, which had won five Tonys. 

I was prepared to watch the story of Ebenezer Scrooge played out in scenes that have become as familiar, and as comfortable, to me as a pair of cozy slippers. When we entered the theater, however, I could see that this production was going to be different.  Before the show started, our children were enchanted by the top-hatted, long-coated performers who played mandolins and accordions on stage, while others threw clementines into the audience, and John and I wondered why there was a full orchestra for a play that is not a musical. All of us gazed in awe at the twinkling lanterns that covered the ceiling of the theater stage like stars in the sky on a clear Christmas night.

The show  began with the full cast on stage, with the familiar words, “Marley was dead: to begin with.”  The cast continued to act as a Greek chorus, narrating portions of the original work  to tie the scenes in the play together.  The first act generally followed Dickens, but it provided us with more insight into the characters of Scrooge, Belle, and Little Fan than the original book and other adaptations. Scrooge, a moneylender, sends his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to collect from a debtor, an errand that Scrooge knows will make Cratchit arrive at his home late on Christmas Eve.  Later, at his own home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, clanking his chains.  Marley warns Scrooge that he will live out his life unhappy and alone unless he changes his ways, He tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts.

As the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge scenes from his childhood and youth, the scenes reveal to the audience that Scrooge had an alcoholic, abusive father who sent his sister, Little Fan, to bring him home from school for the holidays, only to tell him that he would not be going back.  Instead, he would be consigned to an employer to earn money for the family.  The Ghost reveals Belle--not just a pretty girl that Scrooge meets at Fezziwig’s, but  Fezziwig’s daughter--who coaches him on answering her father’s questions. 

In the scenes that follow, Scrooge experiences life as part of a happy family that celebrates his engagement to Belle. Fezziwig even offers to pass his business on to Scrooge, who declines, saying that he wants to pursue his dream of great wealth. The final scene revisited by the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer failing to return to Belle as he had promised, even after he has become wealthy.

The Ghost of Christmas Present criticizes Scrooge for his ignorance of the people who are suffering all around him.  She shows him Bob Cratchit’s home, where he encounters another happy family, despite their poverty caused by Scrooge’s penny-pinching.  She then takes him to the home of his nephew, Fred, Little Fan’s son.  Fred is hosting a party: he describes his uncle as savage and cruel, but Fred admits that he loves Scrooge anyhow.  They next visit Belle and her husband, Nicolas, who reminds Belle that Fezziwig died because of the strain of the financial debt that he owed to Scrooge.  Act 1 ends when Bob and Mrs. Cratchit reappear with Tiny Tim, who has fallen ill after waiting in the cold for his father to return home on Christmas Eve.

The play's second act diverges more sharply from Dickens, recasting Scrooge’s dead sister, Little Fan, as the Ghost of Christmas Future.  Fan shows Scrooge a future in which he has fired Bob Cratchit for poor timekeeping after Tiny Tim’s death.  Instead of the familiar scene where Scrooge’s acquaintances scorn him, however, we see Cratchit, Fred, and Belle remembering Scrooge fondly at his funeral. To save Scrooge from even more pain, Fan declines to show him Tiny Tim’s funeral, as she reminds him of the possibility and rewards of love and kindness.

When Scrooge awakes, he has undergone a transformation.  He gives money to charity collectors, who are amazed by his change in attitude, and he reconciles with Belle, who is happy about Scrooge’s change of heart and wishes him well.  Scrooge then goes to his nephew’s house, finally accepting Fred’s longstanding invitation to share Christmas with him.  However, Scrooge asks Fred to join him in organizing a citywide harvest of food to share with the Cratchit family.  

Now the fun begins for everyone on stage and in the audience as well.  Townspeople hold blankets to catch the food as it is poured onstage from the balcony and others run down the aisles with more delightful delicacies as a large turkey flies across the theater and onto the stage by zipline.  As he calls out the food he wants, Scrooge mentions the San Francisco Giants and a well-known Trader by the name of Joe to the laughter and cheers of audience.  Performers stomp, shout and sing through the aisles as the play draws to a close.  In addition to singing several Christmas carols, the cast also plays carols on handbells.    

By the time Tiny Tim declared, “God bless us every one,” the audience had  laughed and cried, cheered and applauded, and I believe that we all left with a new understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.