Review - Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic
In the same week that a straight stage version of Harold & Maude came to Charing Cross Theatre, it's interesting that another cult film, Ingmar Bergman's autobiographical 1982 Swedish Oscar winner Fanny and Alexander, should reach the London stage, too. (Not to mention the return next week of Emma Rice's stage version of Brief Encounter to London).
There's always a question over what a stage version of something that already exists in another medium - whether on the screen or page - can add to what you've already seen or read. Yes, familiarity breeds content; audiences love to hear stories they already know being re-told. (It has become the prevailing template for musicals to follow this route for years, putting a succession of films on-stage: Broadway's next blockbuster is Disney's Frozen, while London is soon to see Strictly Ballroom brought to the stage).
With Fanny and Alexander, of course, it helps that it is partly set in a theatrical world: the eponymous children's parents are both stars in a Swedish theatre company founded by their father's mother. But though the theatrical world is sumptuously summonsed in the first act, the father's death and the remarriage of the children's mother to a deeply controlling bishop provides the meat of the drama that follows.
The second act, as the mother discovers the co-dependent relationship she has found herself in and the extent of her mistake, is undoubtedly powerful stuff, as gripping as it is gruelling to watch.
But there's still a third act to go - and as impressive as Webster's staging is on Tom Pye's set that is required to morph into multiple locations, it feels both episodic and earnest. But there's also elegance and eloquence, too, in its portrait of this deeply damaged family's life. The metaphysical dimensions of young Alexander's dreams are beautifully summonsed with appearances from multiple ghost figures and even the Grim Reaper; but it means that the play has to constantly fight off the shackles of naturalism and reality it is conveying at other times. It makes for a complicated narrative structure.
But a stirring ensemble cast bring it to resoundingly truthful acting life, with Penelope Wilton the calm centre in this storm-tossed world, with touching work, too, from Catherine Walker as the abused mother, and a sinister performance from Kevin Doyle as her abusive new husband. There's also superb character work from Michael Pennington as an old family friend. Rotating teams of children play the title characters; the ones I saw were sensational.
Originally filmed as a television miniseries (that ran for nearly 5 hours) before being re-edited to a 3 hour film version which won the 1984 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it has now been adapted for the stage by Stephen Beresford for a production by Max Webster that runs for a weighty three-and-a-half hours (including two intervals).
If, in the end, it doesn't entirely succeed, it's also neither dull nor merely dutiful.
Photo by Manuel Harlan