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Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic, London – review round-up

Karina Fernandez, Jonathan Slinger and Vivian Oparah in Fanny and Alexander at he Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Karina Fernandez, Jonathan Slinger and Vivian Oparah in Fanny and Alexander at he Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Another week, another uber-long play on one of London’s biggest stages. After Annie Baker’s John at the National and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the West End, comes Fanny and Alexander – an Ingmar Bergman adaptation that similarly sails past the three-hour mark.

Bergman’s Academy Award-winning 1982 drama about a theatrical Swedish family was originally intended as a five-hour TV miniseries, but is known best in its three-hour film cut. There have been stage adaptations in Scandinavia, but this production, penned by Stephen Beresford, is the first to set up camp in London.

It’s at the Old Vic until April 17, in a production directed by Max Webster that’s stuffed with big names: Dame Penelope Wilton as the family’s matriarchal grandmother, Michael Pennington as her Jewish lover, Catherine Walker as her widowed daughter Emilie and Kevin Doyle as Emilie’s abusive new husband.

But can this impressive cast enlighten Beresford’s Bergman adaptation, or are the critics left in the dark? Does the legendary filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical Oscar-winner translate well from stage to screen? Is Max Webster’s production worthy of its running time?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Fanny and Alexander – From Screen to Stage

A scene from Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Bergman, who was born 100 years ago this year, isn’t the most accessible auteur, his enormous corpus always leaning towards the existential and experimental end of the spectrum. How well has Beresford, who’s debut play was produced in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre only five years ago, and who won a BAFTA for his 2014 film Pride, captured the Swedish cinematographer’s style on stage?

Some critics think that Beresford’s version pales in comparison with Bergman’s original: “Bergman’s 1982 film is lushly sensual, moving, thrilling and disquieting,” writes Sam Marlowe (The Stage, ★★★). “This version by Stephen Beresford never quite convincingly makes the case for the transition from screen to stage. It doesn’t achieve the rich strangeness of the original; nor is it sufficiently adventurous in seeking a dramatic language to take the place of Bergman’s cinematic vision.”

She’s not alone, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) writing that “to compare the beauty of the original with the visuals here is like comparing a rainbow with an iridescent soap-bubble”, Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) noting that “it mostly lacks the nightmare intensity of the movie and the feeling that we are sharing a child’s vision of the adult world”, and Claire Webb (Radio Times, ★★★) complaining that “it suffers from a flabby script and too many set changes”.

“There are three acts, endless scene changes and two 15-minute intervals (which is, frankly, one too many),” chimes Ann Treneman (Times, ★★). “What were they thinking?”

Others, though, think Beresford has not done too bad a job. “I am not absolutely sure I understand why writer Stephen Beresford wanted to adapt this rich film into a stage show, but he and director Max Webster have done so brilliantly,” says Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “Although some scenes are played word for word from the original, they slightly alter the themes, speed up the action, and add some much-needed humour. The result is engrossing and rewarding.”

The show is “a borderline magical realist interrogation of human morality” that’s “one of the more successful creations of the Matthew Warchus regime at the Old Vic” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) and “a richly nourishing saga” that’s “full of teasing theatrical references” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★).

“Beresford’s filleting and adorning do a good job, preserving the eloquent ambiguities of master dramatist Bergman’s key one-to-ones with plenty of authentic text to take us straight to the heart of the human condition,” asserts David Nice (Arts Desk, ★★★).

“At its best, Beresford shows that the theatre can be mirror and shelter: a safe place in which to consider harshness,” asserts Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★).

Fanny and Alexander – A Slice of Scandinavia

A scene from Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There have been a few Bergman adaptations on the London stage recently, thanks largely to Belgian theatre-maker Ivo van Hove, who has adapted several of his films for the stage, most recently After the Rehearsal and Persona in a Barbican double-bill last year. Max Webster, a familiar face the the Old Vic after his productions of Cover My Tracks and The Lorax, takes the reins here.

“Max Webster’s heady production is not flawless, but it’s a pretty tremendous achievement,” lauds Lukoswki. “It’s not always subtle, but it’s possessed of a surging emotional swoop and visual audacity that bursts its way into your heart,” he adds.

“Director Max Webster animates matters well, seldom if ever allowing changes between shorter screen-length scenes to slow matters down,” agrees Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★). “Mark Henderson’s lighting somehow mimics the cinematography of Bergman’s cameraman Sven Nykvist, making even sparse compositions feel rich.”

“Webster’s production has tableaux to ravish the eye and enough quirks to keep the clock ticking along so the evening’s three-and-a-half hours (or more) seldom seem to lag,” adds Quentin Letts. (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “The costumes and styling are almost those of a doll’s house.”

But Webster’s production has plenty of critics, too. It’s “episodic and earnest” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★), and “far too uneven” for Treneman, who describes how “all three people in front of me had fled by the end of the second interval”.

“While there are undoubted moments of arresting invention – the caning of the disobedient (because imaginative) Alexander by his viciously upright bishop step-father is delivered in stark silhouette, as though the pair were shadow puppets – much of this feels like pepper sprinkled on something bland,” writes Cavendish.

“Later key scenes are marred by music and sound,” complains Nice. “Bergman was always economical with his scores, so why does Webster encourage endless background and foreground wash from composer Alex Baranowski?”

“There’s nothing formally exciting in either Beresford’s adaptation or Webster’s production – nothing that exploits the story’s theatricality in any particularly fresh or inventive way,” adds Marlowe. “Sometimes the staging feels overcooked, sometimes underdone.”

Fanny and Alexander – A Family of Thespians

Michael Pennington in Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Michael Pennington in Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Penelope Wilton might be the name on the posters, but she’s just an ensemble player in this story. Catherine Walker, Kevin Doyle, Michael Pennington, Jonathan Slinger and Lolita Chakrabarti make up a fairly starry Swedish family. The eponymous protagonists, meanwhile, are portrayed by a rotating set of child actors.

“What I most enjoyed was the acting,” concludes Billington. “Wilton is superb as Alexander’s grandmother. She gives us the imperious dignity of the stage veteran, treats precise articulation as a moral virtue and yet exudes a sense of bubbling mischief: at one point she tearfully reminisces about her dead husband while fondling her longtime lover, Isak. Pennington, in an equally fine performance, lends this elderly Jewish antiques dealer a spry wit and abiding belief in the power of fantasy.”

Wilton is “magisterial and warm” and “sharply acerbic and commanding”, according to Crompton, “wonderfully funny”, according to Clapp, and “a generous-hearted, zestily witty grande dame in tangerine silk”, according to Marlowe.

“The acting from everyone involved is on fine form, with each performer giving the audience something totally unique,” writes Alistair Wilkinson (Broadway World, ★★★). “Kevin Doyle’s Edward is double-layered; sadistic, yet personable, which makes it totally plausible to believe why the vulnerable Emilie has taken an interest in him.”

“Catherine Walker’s Emilie is moving, Jonathan Slinger has a dissolute urgency as the endlessly surprising Uncle Gustav, and Michael Pennington brings quirky decency to the resourceful mystic Isak,” writes Hitchings. “Yet it’s when Penelope Wilton is at the heart of the action that this three-and-a-half hour show gets closest to the expansiveness and enchantment of its famous source material.”

It’s only Nice that has a bad word to say about the performances, in fact: “The Old Vic group marshalled by director Max Webster is hardly ideally cohesive,” he contends, “and it’s seriously hampered by some woeful miscasting.”

Most critics, though, agree the night belongs to Wilton and her ensemble, and especially to Katie Simons and Misha Handley, who took on the titular children on press night. “The part of Alexander, in particular, is enormous for a child and Handley is extraordinary,” exalts Letts. “Totally believable.”

Fanny and Alexander – Is it any good?

Kevin Doyle and Catherine Walker in Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Kevin Doyle and Catherine Walker in Fanny and Alexander. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The acting is first-rate, almost everyone agrees. Wilton is on fine form and her co-stars bring this Swedish family saga bursting to life.

The quality of Beresford’s adaptation and Webster’s staging, however, prove more divisive. Some think that this stage version pales in comparison with the screen original, but others think it does it a degree of justice, successfully exploring the scary, supernatural world of turn-of-the-century Scandinavia.

Three and four-star ratings proliferate, pointing to a show that’s certainly no stinker, but that struggles to call itself successful either. Is it worth three hours of your time? Hard to say.

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