Something of a dream team has been assembled for this stage adaptation of Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 black-and-white classic film about a Broadway icon and her ambitious assistant: screen stars Gillian Anderson and Lily James in the roles made famous by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, under the direction of avant-garde Belgian big-shot Ivo van Hove.
Van Hove has scores of successes under his belt, most recently his adaptation of the 1976 film Network starring Bryan Cranston, which ran at the National Theatre last year before heading to New York. This latest screen-to-stage production (he’s done plenty more) is at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End until mid-May.
It’s a show stuffed to the gills with talent – as well as Anderson and James, there’s a soundtrack from PJ Harvey, a set by Van Hove’s regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, and a supporting cast that contains BAFTA-winner Monica Dolan.
But is this star-studded production a bumpy ride? Do Anderson and James live up to their roles’ legendary originators? Is All About Eve actually all about Ivo?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Ivo van Hove’s shows tend to be high-concept and technically complex, and it’s no different here: All About Eve sticks close to the film’s script, but also throws in live video feed, big-screen close-ups, and roaming cameramen. The wizardry worked well with Network, but how does it do here?
Almost all the critics think the drama gets dampened. “When Van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, applied similar techniques to Network at the National, they improved on the movie by highlighting the transformation of TV news into a branch of showbusiness,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). “Here I’m not sure what the staging adds to the story.”
“It strips a lot of the joy and wit out of it,” agrees Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “The result is glossy, but functional and superficial.”
“It’s clever and technically accomplished, but between its bracing opening and absorbing final section it doesn’t have enough spark,” concurs Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★), while Dominic Maxwell (The Times,★★) complains that Van Hove’s device-heavy approach “drains the energy from the action”, and Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph, ★★★) labels the direction “efficient and uninspired”.
“Gimmickry can be fascinating,” concedes Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “But when done to excess, Van Hoveian cleverness reduces the humanity in the theatrical experience.”
“Many of the interventions, though intellectually satisfying, feel like an essay in film criticism,” chimes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “They have the effect of flattening rather than heightening the action, and they don’t quite spring to theatrical life.”
There’s one notable exception in the critical ranks. “All About Eve works terrifically, in part because the cast and script are excellent, and in part because Van Hove’s usual box of live video tricks is so apt for a story that always felt half film, half theatre,” writes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★).
Most, though, beg to differ. “What was originally a crackling, high-gloss satire now feels like a horror movie without a pulse,” concludes Ben Brantley (New York Times). “The big tragic emotions that he elicited so brilliantly in his Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible simply aren’t here to be mined.”
Gillian Anderson last appeared on the London stage in 2014 at the Young Vic, when she played Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, she takes on another legendary role – fading Broadway star Margo, a part made famous by Bette Davis more than 65 years ago.
She is, by most accounts, really good – her performance is “enigmatic” and “captivating” according to Will Longman (LondonTheatre, ★★★), “box-office gold” according to Letts, and “absolutely one of those ‘I was there’ moments” according to Lukowski.
“Whereas Davis gave Margo a regal grandeur that at times felt carnivorous, Anderson is cool and contained, more likely to seem brittle than ferocious,” observes Hitchings. “Anderson’s smallest gestures, such as a brief and pensive wrinkling of the brow, are eloquent.”
“What saves the evening is Anderson, finding a way to banish Davis’ shadow, with a performance that is full of flickering nuance,” echoes Crompton. “She manages to say more with a curled lip and a slight shift of her eyebrows than a film of her vomiting down the loo ever could; her scripted putdowns, often delivered more in sorrow than anger, are punctuated by perfectly pitched pauses.”
“She is simultaneously brittle and radiant, poised yet fragile,” writes Tripney, while Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) praises her “irresistible allure” and “drop-dead wit”, and John Nathan (Metro, ★★★) calls her “witty and sardonic”.
“Anderson is quite brilliant, cutting people off at the knees with a barbed comment one minute, but then a figure of crushing vulnerability the next,” says Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★★).
Not everyone agrees. Cavendish describes how Anderson “communicates wariness well with just a poisonous glance” but complains that “we don’t get the kind of close-ups that maximised Davis’ magnificent drowsy disdain”, and Maxwell reckons that her performance “feels too downbeat for a role crying out for something bigger and more theatrical”.
Lily James’ stock is soaring right now, thanks to a string of high-profile films and TV series, including the second Mamma Mia! film. Her last stage appearance was in 2016, in Romeo and Juliet in Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick season.
As the titular schemer here, she gets a mixed response from the critics. Some reviews reckon she nails it, with Billington writing that she “captures Eve’s mix of faux-naivety and sly cunning” and Hitchings calling it “a performance of bright-eyed vitality”.
Others, though, are less convinced. Crompton thinks she “struggles to make something of Eve”, and Tripney calls her “less compelling” than Anderson and notes that “the production never lets us get under her skin”.
“James’ Eve is so fiendishly feverish and tremulous from the get-go, you can’t believe everyone doesn’t run for cover,” reckons Brantley.
There’s consistent praise for Dolan, though, as Margo’s unfortunate friend Karen. She’s “outstanding” for Billington and “razor-sharp” for Hitchings, while Tripney remarks how she “provides another reminder of what a great actor she is”.
“Much more than the sweet housewife in the film, this Karen is ballsy, fun, highly intelligent, conflicted, devoted,” says Taylor.
It’s a bit disappointing actually, considering the calibre of creative involved. The reviews are mixed, ranging from two stars in the Times, to four in the Mail and elsewhere, with most critics opting to award three.
No one is unanimously lauded, but most reviews reckon Anderson and Dolan supply strong performances. There’s less praise for James, and even less for Van Hove – his trademark technological trickery seems to have obscured the story, rather than enlivened it.
Anderson escapes unscathed, then, but this is a definite dud for the Belgian director.