Life and death, cruelty and kindness and joy and sorrow are the elements that fuel the plot of Max Webster's impressive production of Fanny and Alexander (Old Vic Theatre), adapted by Stephen Beresford from Ingmar Bergman's classic autobiographical 1982 film.
The Ekdahls are a family of the theatre in the 20th century. The lives are as messy and passionate as the characters they play onstage. Oscar, the father, runs and stars in a provincial playhouse, along with Alexander and his sister Fanny's mother Emilie, while their grandmother, Helena, is a doyenne of this world too. Fanny and Alexander have grown up in this loving chaos, surrounded by laughter. But after their father dies suddenly, their mother remarries the iron-willed local bishop, Edvard, and their world is turned upside down. As creative freedom and rigid orthodoxy clash, a war ensues between imagination and austerity.
This celebration of theatre, fantasy and family life is told through the prism of Alexander's memory, so we get the feeling we are having a child's vision of the adult world. It takes a while for the drama to really kick in as the story moves from a childhood idyll to the Brothers Grimm, but then accumulates a strong head of steam with a particularly powerful second act.
Tom Pye's set design offers in the early part of the play, gorgeous red velvet curtains and effortlessly evokes the backstage bustle of a provincial theatre – we see the actors putting on a kitsch nativity play and rehearsing Hamlet – while later the Ekdahl's living quarters is vividly conjured up and we see the family enjoying a yuletide feast with an eccentric uncle.
Director Max Webster draws impeccable performances from his excellent ensemble. Catherine Walker makes a naively trusting and as she discovers at her cost, a sorely abused widowed wife as Emilie. Amy Jayne and Guillermo Bedward convey both charm and cheekiness as Fanny and Alexander respectively (their roles are shared between four young actors) Kevin Doyle is very good as Emilie's punitive, puritanical second husband, Edvard, bringing out the character's sadistic abusiveness, while Lolita Chakrabarti is equally chilling as Edvard's venomous sister.
Best of although, is Penelope Wilton, providing an acting masterclass, as the grandmother Helena, giving us the dignity of the stage veteran and exuding a sense of bubbling mischief. I must also commend Michael Pennington who lends her husband, the elderly Jewish antique dealer Isak Jacobi a spry wit and abiding belief in the power of fantasy.
This may lack the insight and intensity of Bergman's masterpiece but it still provides a rich and rewarding evening in the theatre and its three and a half hour length simply flies by!
Fanny and Alexander
Runs until Saturday 14 April at the Old Vic Theatre
Box Office: 0844 871 7628Last modified: March 23, 2018