STephen Mangan, one of the most disarming comedic actors, is not an obvious cast for Dickens’ lonely, abject and miserly Scrooge. But sitting in a dressing room one December afternoon, he seems disconcertingly transformed. Her beautiful sad face with her big, bright smile (familiar from TV shows such as Green wing and Episodes) is topped with a thick gray mop that he had specially dyed to look like the room A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. “It took seven hours at the hairdresser to get it bleached – my scalp was in pieces,” he volunteered. And he’s got a new gray beard to match. “Mangan actually means lush hair growth – ‘mang’ is a type of mane,” he laughs – which sounds like the esoteric answer to a quiz question I didn’t ask.
Mangan, 53, is a huge quiz fan: âI’ve always loved quizzes, language puzzles, logic challenges and silly things,â he says, and we start discussing the seasonal fun of Christmas games and from the animated scene of Jack. Thorne’s theatrical adaptation of Dickens’ novel in which Scrooge’s nephew and friends rack their brains: is it an animal? Does it live? Does it growl? Eventually, they break it. The answer to their riddle is: Mr. Scrooge himself.
Mangan’s penchant for quizzes also lives behind the scenes. He recently published a children’s book, Escape from the bedrooms: an entertaining, sincere and problem-solving adventure. It is, in the least sad way, the grieving process – something he knows from having lost both parents to cancer in his twenties. Two bereaved children must unlock the secret of a teasing sequence of parts to break free. The book is illustrated by his sister, Anita, who, when she puts her owl pencil on paper, turns out to have a knack for the macabres. âWe’re only a year apart and we’re very close,â he says. Her pride in what she achieved is evident: âOur family had its own sense of humor. I didn’t need to explain anything to him. The result of the story is, “Be kind to yourself, don’t try to solve everything in one day” – just as good a message as any at Christmas.
Mangan admits to feeling frustrated by the “forced division” between comedy and drama, believing that the best stories make you laugh and cry. “It may sound strange,” he says, but in his book he hopes to “unblock grief through comedy.” And in her case, grief was really a key to unlocking her life. After his mother died (she was 45) he decided life was too short to be a lawyer (he had just graduated in law from Cambridge). Instead, he auditioned for Rada: âActing was what I wanted to do for a career but maybe I didn’t have the courage.
One of the nicest things to come out of our conversation is Mangan’s urge to encourage and console others. He maintains that the âextremely difficultâ stage of grief does not last. And when I ask him how he copes with life’s daily challenges, he suggests (for him and for us) the proactive way out of a deadlock: âThe best way to do something is to start doing it. We all have things we are putting off, but write that first word or knock on that door or pick up that phone – you don’t know how it’s going to end – but start it. It’s a hopeful strategy but his optimism is always tempered by realism and he admits: âIt has been over 30 years since my mother passed away and I still face it.
He remembers his childhood Christmases very well. His parents were Irish Catholics and the family lived in North London. Christmas was âextremely exciting – we were the kids who were in our parents ‘room at 3:30 am, saying,’ Is it still time to open the presents? “He was, he admits, an altar boy and laughs: if you had to go to church, you might as well be in costume and on stage. And yes, his family played all the Christmas games. Was he good at charades? His response is surprisingly shy, but when I ask him about his quiz prowess, I try to brag, âI’m not bad. I am quite competitive. I did Celebrity brain and i’m happy to say i won my sleeve and i did Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Twice.”
He lives in Primrose Hill and has three sons (14, 11 and 5) with actress Louise Delamere. Two of the boys have come to believe in Santa Claus, but the younger one clings to it. The family now conspires to keep the deception festive. Mangan must be fun as a dad – there is no need to look any further for clues than to consider the proposed title for his second children’s book: The fart that changed the world. âIt’s a working title,â he says. I can’t imagine a child who wouldn’t want to keep reading.
But could we go back to Scrooge? In the second half of Matthew Warchus’ famous production, Mangan’s Scrooge acquires an eventful benevolence. He wears his heart on his tattered red brocade sleeve and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Is the role moving to play? “It’s – there’s blow after blow for my emotional well-being.” Scrooge has this horrible realization that he hates who he has become. He’s in his 50s and has time to do something. It touches me every time because we all have regrets. I find it strange when people say they have no regrets. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t have friendships or loves that they handle badly and who would act differently now? Who doesn’t have people they love but to whom they feel they can’t show it enough? “
âFor Scrooge, giving is revelation,â he concludes. How extravagant is Mangan? He’s good at eating out, he says, but it’s his wife who takes care of the chore of Christmas presents and opportunities to make mistakes. âShe’s excellent at it,â he adds. Scrooge receives a strangely tattered scarf as a Christmas present. And I say we all know – and most of us have received – this scarf. What is the strangest gift he himself has received? âSomeone named Penny gave me an eggplant in college. I never understood whyâ¦ with emojis now, eggplants have come to mean something differentâ¦ â
Before we go our separate ways, we get closer to the Christmas cookie issue and that time of sitting like drunken kings and (in Mangan’s house and mine) trying to guess the punchline of the jokes about them. crackers. Could he try to explain why cracker jokes and the questions that accompany them are shame? Before trying it, he exclaims at the faint gifts inside (“How many small sets of screwdrivers do you have? need?) and then, “I don’t know why the jokes are so bad, it’s crazy.” Once the acting dries up, I go into business to make Christmas cookies with Well jokes and quizzes. Mangan’s crackers – they will definitely be worth the wait.
A Christmas Carol is in Old Vic, London SE1 8NB, until January 8