MailOnline, 2nd October 2018, Quentin Letts

Amid suitably Scandinavian weather, London’s Old Vic has opened a sprawling family saga in Fanny and Alexander.

Set in Uppsala, Sweden, Ingmar Bergman’s early 20th-century story could be described as a Chekhovian fairytale with cautionary moral extremes and dollops of life-affirming merriment. All this is staged with panache and long, scarlet curtains on the Old Vic’s vast stage - but you may well miss your last train home.

Sailor-suited little Alexander and his sister Fanny are the children of theatre owner and actress Emilie Ekdahl (Catherine Walker in a pinched Edwardian waist). The Ekdahls are rich sybarites who like nothing better than a family banquet. Random members of the cast stand at a vintage microphone to list, for the audience’s benefit, the sumptuous delicacies served at each course of these feasts. These narrative touches point to the play’s origins as a 1982 Bergman film.

Into this paradise steps the cloaked figure pf the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe. Alexander is the only person to see him and from that chilling moment we know Something Bad is imminent.

Emilie Ekdahl, widowed, soon remarries disastrously. Her new husband is the austere Bishop Vergérus, whose home is as stark as the Ekdahls’ was velvety. Fanny and Alexander are flung from theatrical gaiety into a Brothers Grimm world of worted aunts, a bare-walled bedroom and Calvinist discipline.

Max 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. The lighting (by Mark Henderson) accentuates the behavioural contrasts that are being related. The costumes and styling are almost those of a doll’s house.

The ensemble delivers high-grade acting. Jonathan Slinger, in watchsping-curled moustache, plays one uncle, libidinous, but lovable. Thomas Arnold plays another, careworn and broke. Lolita Chakrabarti and Karina Fernandez are their wives.

The impeccable Penelope Wilton presides over the household as the loving grandmother and Michael Pennington is perfectly cast as her benevolent gentleman, Isak Jacobi. Kevin Doyle’s bishop is as weird as he needs to be - one of those clergymen who points to the ceiling every time he mentions heaven.

But the evening really belongs to Fanny and Alexander who, on Wednesday, were played by Katie Simons and Misha Handley one of four boys in the role). The part of Alexander, in particular, is enormous for a child and Handley is extraordinary. Totally believable.

I swung between enjoyment and thinking it was all becoming a touch pretentious, with references to Shakespeare and the theatre world pushing it dangerously close to a sort of self-reverence not much better than that of the nasty bishop.

In the end, the luxuriant staging and the sheer force of Bergman’s concluding message - that ‘there is no shame in deriving pleasure from this little world’ and that we mortals cannot hope to understand everything under God’s sun (if God there be) - won me round and I felt like cheering when that lad Handley, flanked by the great Wilton and Pennington, took his curtain call.

The Guardian, 2nd March 2018, Michael Billington

You can see the temptation to turn Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning, autobiographical 1982 movie into a stage show. It s, after all, a celebration of the theatre, fantasy and family life. But, while Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is faithful and Max Webster’s three-and-a-half-hour production gallops along and fields especially strong performances from Penelope Wilton and Michael Pennington, it mostly lacks the nightmare intensity of the movie and the feeling that we are sharing a child’s vision of the adult world.

It starts with the boy Alexander - excellently played by Misha Handley who shares the role with three others - coming before the curtain in his sailor suit to tell us we are about the see the longest play ever. But we quickly lose the sense that we are watching events through the prism of the boy’s memory. What we get, in the first third, is a recreation of a rackety Swedish theatrical family circa 1907. We see them doing a kitschy nativity play, rehearsing Hamlet and enjoying a yuletide feast where an eccentric uncle lights his own farts. The influence of Dickens on Bergman is visible - there are echoes of the Vincent Crummles scenes from Nicholas Nickleby and the Fezziwig party from A Christmas Carol - but the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Easily the most dramatic section, in a three-act show is the middle one. Alexander’s father has died and his mother, marries a punitive, puritanical bishop, Edvard, who represents everything about the rigorous Protestant conscience Bergman. The swagged curtains of the first act give way, in Tom Pye’s design, to stripped Swedish pine as the story moves from childhood idyll to the Brothers Grimm. Kevin Doyle is very good as Edvard, bringing out all the character’s sadistic abusiveness: there is a chilling moment when his hand delves under Alexander’s bedclothes only to fish out a wayward teddy bear. But Doyle gives Edvard enough dynamism to make you believe that Catherine Walker’s naively trusting Emilie might have fallen for him.

Thereafter the story becomes increasingly gothic, which is something that works better on screen than of stage: the world of ghosts, locked rooms and encounters with a cowled Death figure doesn’t exactly chill the blood. However conscientious the stage version, it can’t match Bergman’s genius for using the camera to pick up revealing detail, such as the moment Alexander instinctively recoils as his dying father grips his hand with ferocious tightness.

What I most enjoyed was the acting. Wilton is superb as Alexander’s grandmother. She gives 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.

Lolita Chakrabarti as Edvard’s venomous sister, Jonathan Slinger as a lecherous restaurateur and Thomas Arnold as the uncle with the explosive bottom all give rich performances. But, while the production offers a fast-moving family saga and dispels the myth of Bergman as a monastic gloom merchant, it only fleetingly captures the magic of the movie.

Evening Standard, 2nd March 2018, Henry Hitchings

It’s not hard to see why Ingmar Bergman’s beautifully observed Eighties film seems ripe for a stage adaptation. Set in Sweden in the early years of last century it’s a richly nourishing saga about the dysfunctional Ekdahl family, full of teasing theatrical references.

Here its star attraction is Penelope Wilton as proud matriarch Helena, who puts the ‘grand’ in grandmother. Presiding over the privileged world in which siblings Fanny and Alexander grow up - a place where fantasy keeps clashing with reality - she radiates warmth and wise authority.

At first, we see the Ekdahls celebrating Christmas indulgently. The early scenes are sensitively orchestrated by director Max Webster, but a compelling story only emerges when the children’s widowed mother marries the local bishop.

His rigid attitudes collide with the youthful imagination of Alexander (last night played by Misha Handley, who alternates the role with three others). There’s a stunning moment when the bishop’s house moves ominously towards the audience - we feel his austere world view being imposed with a firmness bordering on violence, and Kevin Doyle makes him splendidly creepy.

Unlike the film, Stephen Beresford’s interpretation rarely gives us a sense of seeing through the child’s eyes. But it does increasingly sinister as features of Alexander’s inner life burst from within him.

While the ghostly and gothic elements are undeveloped, the performances impress: Catherine Walker’s Emilie is moving, Jonathan Slinger has a dissolute urgency as the needlessly surprising Uncle Gustav, and Michael Pennington brings quirky decency to the resourceful mystic Isak. 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.  

Financial Times, 2nd March 2018

A three-and-a-half stage adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film would sound daunting to many, so Stephen Beresford’s version opens with young protagonist Alexander Ekdahl declaring to the audience that it will contain ghosts, demons, camels and all kinds of wonders. And so it does: Bergman’s last unquestioned masterpiece (released in 1982) contains all meditations you might expect on mortality, love and fulfilment, but also on the relationship between performance and reality (the Ekdahls are a theatrical family in 1907 Uppsala, Sweden) and a host of other matters, including some undisguised fun. The adultery of Alexander’s uncle Gustav Adolf may be domestically problematic, but it gives Jonathan Slinger the saltiest speeches of the evening.

Beresford has not simply translated Bergman’s screen original, which ran for more than three hours in its cinematic version, over five in its intended TV incarnation. He invents dialogue and entire scenes, not least to throw more light on Alexander’s mother Emilie (Catherine Walker, first-rate) as she rashly over-compensates for her less than passionate first marriage by wedding the austere Bishop Edvard Vergérus - Kevin Doyle, who does a fine job of maintaining some humility in his character for as long as possible. The adaptation also opens matters up, so that although we still experience Bergman’s semi-autobiographical tale as being to some extent that of his avatar Alexander (played confidently on press night by Misha Handley), it now feels more essentially an ensemble piece, with everyone getting a decent crack of the whip.

This also helps the publicity by making it a little more plausible to bill Penelope Wilton as the star. She turns un a beautiful performance as the unflappable, unfoolable  materfamilias Helena Ekdahl (persistently giving line readings to others even during family dinners), but she would be the last to claim this is her show, especially with names such as Michael Pennington, Lolita Chakrabarti, Annie Firbank and Sargon Yelda in the cast.

Director Max Webster animates matters well, seldom if ever allowing changes between shorter screen-length scenes to slow matters down; Mark Henderson’s lighting somehow mimics the cinematography of Bergman’s cameraman Sven Nykvist, making even sparse compositions feel rich. London has presented a number of unusually long stage shows recently; this one, Bergman and all, feels least like it.

The Stage, 2nd March 2018, Sam Marlowe

“More life, more love!” cries Fanny and Alexander’s doomed father Oscar, as he raises his last ever Christmas toast in this adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman classic.  It’s the irrepressible demand of warm-blooded humanity, and Bergman’s semi-autobiographical narrative is crammed with appetite: for food, sex, comfort and kindness, for understanding, for creative and emotional fulfilment.

In the embrace of their tempestuous theatrical family, as if watching mayhem erupt around them them from the eye of a storm, imaginative, defiant Alexander Ekdahl and his little sister Fanny see such hunger send their relatives reeling in a dance that is both exuberant and dangerous. And they learn that even in the midst of vitality, death is always waiting. Bergman’s 1982 film, conceived as a TV miniseries, is lushly sensual, moving, thrilling and disquieting.

Since its milieu is thespian, it also has a heady whiff of greasepaint. Yet 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. Max Webster’s production, while well-acted, is also a touch pedestrian. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t have its pleasures.

Adults, the child’s-eye plot suggests, may pretend to know what they’re doing. But they play silly games, and they’re often as bewildered as infants. In Uppsala, Sweden, in 1907, Oscar Ekdahl (Sargon Yelda) runs a provincial theatre, where his wife Emilie (Catherine Walker) and mother Helena (Penelope Wilton) are both actresses. When he collapses during rehearsals for Hamlet, and soon after dies, his grief-stricken wife turns for spiritual comfort to the ascetic, widowed bishop, Edvard Vergérus (Kevin Doyle), and later marries him.

It’s a terrible mistake: Edvard turns out to be a repressed, cruel bully, and Emilie’s children – particularly Alexander – suffer abuse at his hands in the name of loving correction. It’s left to the ingenuity and devotion of their family to save them from the untender mercies of this unhinged man of God.

Alexander (on press night an assured and charismatic Misha Handley), scampering in his sailor suit, leads us behind the red velvet curtains of Tom Pye’s set, into a bustling backstage world, and then to the Ekdahl family home, where Yuletide celebrations are in full bacchanalian swing. It’s playfully metatheatrical – but it’s also perfectly possible that the entire story is the boy’s own invention, given his penchant for weaving fictions so vivid that even he’s not entirely sure whether they’re true.

At the Christmas table, Penelope Wilton’s matriarch Helena basks in the limelight, a generous-hearted, zestily witty grande dame in tangerine silk. Flirtations fizz, not least hers with her old flame Isak Jacobi, a Jewish moneylender and antiques dealer (played with an air of philosophical mysticism, elderly frailty and radiant kindness by Michael Pennington).

Black-clad servants step up to a pair of microphones to describe, in lip-smacking detail, the feast of delicacies on which the dinner guests lustily gorge. Gustav Adolph, brother to Oscar and their dyspeptic sibling Carl, devours a young maid with sexually voracious eyes. “We actors, we’re children, aren’t we? The time must come when we leave the nursery and the dressing-up box and grow up,” declares Helena, announcing her plans to retire from the stage.

There’s little sign, though, of any of the Ekdahl clan racing towards maturity, whatever their age. While Jonathan Slinger’s mischievous, volatile, handlebar-moustachioed Gustav is like a prosaic overgrown schoolboy, Thomas Arnold’s sulky Carl entertains Alexander and Fanny, and above all himself, by lighting a succession of festive farts.

Among the frivolity, though, there are dark premonitions. Suspended doorways swoop and glide like images from a Magritte painting, the Grim Reaper himself lurking behind them. Later, after Emilie weds Edvard in a shower of blood-red petals, she and the children move into his home, a stark white box faintly reminiscent of a coffin. “There’s absolutely no such thing as ghosts,” declares Fanny stoutly, but she’s wrong. Whether they take the form of memories or regrets, of a lost, beloved father who returns with a warning like Shakespeare’s spectral King Hamlet, or even the Holy Ghost, they are an inescapable presence.

We miss the delicate intimacy of Bergman’s film – the way a close-up lingers on lips pressed against a cheek or whispering urgently into an ear, or the nacreous eyelids of a sleeping child. 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. Sometimes the staging feels overcooked, sometimes underdone: that Death figure, complete with hood and scythe, seems a touch crude, as do the phantoms of the bishop’s dead daughters who, with their long black hair, look as if they’ve scuttled in from the Ring films.

Doyle’s Edvard, on the other hand, needs more icy menace; here, we get his psychological damage and twisted piety, but not his streak of sadism – though his poisonous all-female household, headed by Lolita Chakrabarti as his bitter sister certainly ramp up the horror.

What casts a glow, however, is the evocation of love – flawed, fallible people taking risks, making sacrifices and suffering hurts for one another – and the joys and consolations of fantasy. Even if it can’t match the film’s lingering potency, this is a touching family drama, and a profane hymn to dreamers, players and tellers of tales.

What’s On Stage, 2nd March 2018, Sarah Crompton

The chill weather lent an atmospheric hand to the opening of the Old Vic’s staging of Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 epic Fanny and Alexander, freezing the audience into a suitable simulacrum of the Swedish winter in Uppsala where the story begins.

I took my seat in a cold grump yet was immediately entranced as young Alexander (Misha Handley on the night I saw it) appeared before the glowing red curtain and announced in confident tones: “You are about to watch the longest play in the history of the world!” Well, not quite, though at three and a half hours this sprawling family saga, set in the first decade of the 20th century, is still a heft investment of time. It’s shorter, however, than Bergman’s 188-minute cinematic version, which in turn was cut down from the 312-minute TV version which, when released as a film, really was one of the longest in history.

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. Although some scenes are played word for word from the original, they slightly alter the themes, speedup the action, and add some much-needed humour. The result is engrossing and rewarding.

Red curtains provide the key to Tom Pye’s vision of the dramatically-inclined Ekdahl family, who run and perform in a successful theatre. The heavy velvet curtains swish and whirr around the stage, creating the rooms of the theatre and the comfortable family house where we first meet them, celebrating Christmas. Beresford has come up with a clever framing device for narrating the story; he also uses it to list, with mouth-watering effect, the elaborate food they are eating, as they mime in consumption.

As on screen these early scenes are a joy. The key part of materfamilias Helena has been given a nicely ironic, long-suffering sense of humour. In the hands of Penelope Wilton she is both magisterial and warm, full of a realisation of time passing, and tenderness for her family, but sharply acerbic and commanding. The scene where she sits and reminisces with Michael Pennington’s gently philosophical Isak Jacobi, remembering the day when her husband discovered their affair - “He was holding a gun; I was holding his leg” - was my favourite of the entire evening, just two wonderful actors making transformative magic with the power of their imaginations.

This sense of transformation, of the life-giving, chaotic power of fantast - which is part of the theme of the piece - grinds to a terrible halt when Fanny and Alexander’s father Oscar dies suddenly and their mother Emilie (a heart-rending Catherine Walker) comes under the spell of Kevin Doyle’s Calvinist bishop Edvard, a man who puts heavy emphasis on the more ferocious aspects of the Christian religion. When she marries him, renouncing her former life in search of truth and reality, the play reflects that with a remarkable scene change, to a harsh white box. The menu, still recited, changes too: cabbage soup and black bread.

Mark Henderson’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting, sculpts the children’s suffering, the sudden loss, the encounter with cruelty as Alexander is beaten for telling stories about his hated step-father. “I am punishing you out of love,” Doyle’s bishop explains, and he is a good enough actor to make you see the anguish of the man as well as his terrible anger. The effect of the staging, as the story unwinds through tragedy, familial love, and supernatural events, is to make us feel that change, to build it into the fabric of the evening.

It’s impressive stuff and it’s bolstered by exceptional performances from Handley and Katie Simons (as Fanny) and from a supporting cast that includes Jonathan Slinger as the philandering but life-enhancing Gustav, whose humane faith in flawed humanity is set fiercely against the bishop’s unflinching belief in his rectitude.  

I wondered about some of the adaptive choices: making Alexander haunted by death rather than by the ghost of his father seemed oddly reductive. But I did admire it enormously. In celebrating the power of stagecraft, Beresford and Webster have made a truly effective slice of theatre.



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