The story follows the lives of the Ekdahls, a large, theatrical family in Uppsala, Sweden, in the early twentieth century. Fanny & Alexander’s father, Oscar Ekdahl, runs the theatre, and they live on site with Oscar’s mother and two brothers (and their wives). Much of the action is viewed through the eyes of Alexander, a boy with an active imagination, haunted by the figure of death.
Stephen Beresford’s script isn’t just a carbon copy of Bergman’s film. He inserts new scenes and dialogue, and has fun with the plays within the play.
‘Ladies and gentlemen’ shouts Alexander to the audience as he opens proceedings, ‘welcome to the longest play in the history of the world. Will it be boring?’
In a word: no. Fanny & Alexander is such an ambitious production that even the most disinterested viewer would struggle to raise a yawn. The plot hurtles along at a mile a minute, with scenes chopping and changing whilst minor cast members take the microphone to talk us through the gaps in the action. Most enjoyable are the long lists of hearty, sumptuous food consumed at the Ekdahl table as they sit down to traditional Swedish Christmas banquets. The joyful excess evokes the richness of family life.
Max Webster’s direction in the first act brilliantly evokes a ramshackle provincial theatre, and cleverly draws out the intricacies of family relationships and dramas, such as Gustav Adolf’s philandering or Oscar’s emotional distance from his wife. This is where the play is at it’s best.
The second act is where the galloping plot falters a little. Things darken suddenly once the children go to live with their cold new stepfather, played sympathetically by Kevin Doyle. The supernatural visions, in the form of ghosts, locked doors and grim reapers, were too showy to feel anything more than theatrical tropes. On film, Bergman explored this with more subtlety: haunting glimpses rather than flashing lights and exposition. The internal references to Hamlet, such as the reappearances of Alexander’s father, work far better than the conversations with death himself.
But the cast give brilliant performances, often in multiple roles, and it is very much an ensemble piece. Jack Falk was a fine Alexander on press night, though the real magic comes from the adults surrounding him. Penelope Wilton and Michael Pennington as Alexander’s grandmother Helena and family ‘friend’ Isaac are particularly impressive. Their characters are cleverly fleshed out in Beresford’s adaptation, lending a knowing wisdom and wry comic touch to the unfolding drama. And as Gustav Adolph, Alexander’s lecherous mustachioed uncle, Jonathan Slinger puts in a scene-stealing turn: all juicy lines and bombastic stage presence.
Even after three and a half hours Fanny & Alexander is anything but boring. But it doesn’t quite succeed with the darker, supernatural undercurrents of the story.
|What||REVIEW: Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic Theatre|
|Where||The Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8NB | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
20 Mar 18 – 14 Apr 18, 7:00 PM – 10:15 PM
|Price||£34.50 - £74.75|
|Website||Click here to book|