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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Will Keen, Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

As happens so frequently in London, the creatives get synchronous brainwaves – for example, the recent Terence Rattigan rediscovery boom, simultaneous Henry Vs and the scads of Great Gatsbys all over town in the last year. Now Henrik Ibsen’s back in the spotlight, with Hattie Morahan still packing them into The Old Vic’s A Doll’s House before its New York transfer and new rival productions of Ghosts on both sides of the Thames. Alas, there has been little love for outgoing artistic director Stephen Unwin’s effort at the Rose in Kingston, so completely overshadowed is it by Richard Eyre’s triumphant return to the Almeida (where he gave us his award-winning Hedda Gabler in 2005) with a scintillating production of his own adaptation.

The inexhaustible Eyre’s fourth of six major productions this year (fresh off the back of The Pajama Game at Chichester!) casts loving light on a classic that is often seen as a duty rather than a pleasure, doomy even by Ibsen’s gloomy standards. Sir Richard’s done everything so right, however, that every hint of humour and heart is mined, and the desperate, gut-wrenching final moments are emotionally devastating but also thrilling. The first smart decision was to dispense with an intermission, taking the three acts straight through a pacey 90 minutes that capitalise on the play’s relentless momentum and economy. Ibsen’s rigorous, intricate construction is honoured with details and nuances that are breathtaking.

One of our finest chameleons, Lesley Manville, is spectacular. She starts as an elegant, witty, assured Helene Alving, frankly relishing the independence of her affluent widowhood, rid of the husband whose public charity only increased her bitter resentment for his callous debauchery. Her apparent strength makes her disappointment, anxiety and disheveled descent into inescapable tragedy that much more moving, from her lonely, delicate overture rejected by Will Keen’s fuss-pot pedant Pastor Manders, the lost love of Helene’s youth (and what can she have seen in him?), another hypocrite whose self-righteousness is betrayed by his furtive ogling of Charlene McKenna’s pert Regina. Helene delights in the return of Oswald (Jack Lowden, also terrific), the son she sent away from the toxic atmosphere of the marriage, and determinedly attributes his exhaustion to his bohemian artist’s life in Paris. She resists with exasperation and denial as the secrets, lies and revelations tumble out, until she is inexorably dragged to rage, horror and grief. Sexual transgression, the fatal inheritance of the sins of the father, madness, morphine and mercy killing – it was all revolutionary in 1881 and it’s still potent.

Tim Hatley’s production design is beautifully conceived. The back wall of the sitting room is a greyish, semi-transparent screen painted with the faint suggestion of tarnished mirrors and faded pictures, through which we see characters in the dining room beyond flit past like phantoms. When Helene hears the whispers and giggles of Oswald and Regina from the other room, she freezes, poleaxed by the memory of her husband and another maid, and one’s blood runs cold, glimpsing their shadow play as she gasps in anguish, “Ghosts!” Peter Mumford’s lighting design is simply brilliant, now bathing Helene in a fiery glow, then suffusing the awful climax with a blood-red dawn. In every department it’s electrifying.


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