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Ghosts review at Royal and Derngate, Northampton – ‘lushly designed and atmospheric’

Penny Downie and James Wilby in Ghosts at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Sheila Burnett
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Railing against the hypocrisy of religious and social propriety, Ibsen’s Ghosts was met with disgust on its 1882 release. Modern audiences won’t get queasy at the mere mention of syphilis, but the play’s atmosphere of wrenching, wretched shame can still summon up a horribly resonant punch.

Mike Poulton’s adaptation teases out the subtleties in the warts-and-all characterisation, allowing director Lucy Bailey to riff on the text’s seething ambiguities. Her cast schemes and scrambles to save face, telling flashes of emotion slipping out between lines.

James Wilby gives a nuanced performance as detestable Pastor Manders, keeping a flickering flame of innocence alive as he’s alternately manipulated and appalled by his flock.

While he badgers and condescends, Penny Downie is quietly devastating as widow Helen, a figure of dignified resolve pulled apart by her irreconcilable love for her son and loathing for her supposedly upstanding husband, whose immorality still haunts the family. A final, harrowing scene sees her reduced to frantic desperation, still clinging to love in the face of misery.

Impressive design work envelops the production in a clammy shroud of inescapable, oppressive melancholy. Composer Richard Hammarton’s soundscape is built on a susurrus of constant rain, underscoring every conversation while minimalist piano chords and shivery string harmonics set the teeth on edge.

Mike Britton’s set, meanwhile, features mildew-green paintwork framing layers of cloudy, semi-transparent screens. Nameless servants scurry about in the shifting, spectral light behind the walls, like revenants endlessly repeating the patterns of their past lives.

Lucy Bailey: ‘It takes a wild approach to release a play’s energy’

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Verdict
Lushly designed and atmospheric new version of Ibsen’s bleak masterpiece
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