Like Ingmar Bergman’s films, the Old Vic’s adaptation of his 1982 period drama takes a little while to get into.
The Swedish director’s Oscar-winning movie is about a self-indulgent theatrical family who live in the town of Uppsala in the early 20th century.
Stephen Beresford’s new adaptation begins with a whirlwind of scene changes as we’re introduced to the Ekdahls: young siblings Fanny and Alexander, their drama queen of a father and affection-starved mother, lecherous uncles, aunts and the grandmother Helena – the flamboyant head of the family.
Initially they’re hard to warm to – with the exception of Helena, who’s played by Penelope Wilton (aka Mrs Crawley in Downton Abbey) and lights up the stage. Rather like Maggie Smith’s matriarch in Downton, she’s gifted the best lines and makes the most of them, wryly contradicting Helena’s observation that “The saddest sight in the world is an actress who will not leave the stage.”
The story takes off after the first of two intervals, when Fanny and Alexander’s widowed mother (an arresting turn by Catherine Walker) marries an ascetic bishop, who carts the family off to his draughty castle to live with his draconian sister and infirm great aunt.
The loathsome bishop is played by Kevin Doyle (another Downton alumnus – Molesley the valet), who considers it his divine duty to beat the imagination out of Alexander. Bergman’s tale turns into a grownup fairy tale as ghosts appear and the children escape through magic.
At its heart, this is young Alexander’s existential quest and the jovial ending is tempered by poignancy as he turns to the elderly for answers. “Why is it that when everything is good and happy it can’t just stay that way?” he asks Helena. “Why does something bad always have to happen? Why does it always have to change?”
Jack Falk and Molly Shenkar are very impressive as Alexander and Fanny, and there are lovely turns by Michael Pennington as the avuncular family friend, and Jonathan Slinger and Thomas Arnold as the spineless uncles.
Director Max Webster’s production is cleverly and slickly staged but at three and a half hours, it suffers from a flabby script and too many set changes.
Early on, Helena tells her son that his nativity is “far too long – everybody says so. It should be straight through in an hour a half.” You wouldn’t want Bergman’s masterpiece to be so brutally curtailed, but a little less would add up to more.
Fanny and Alexander is at London’s Old Vic until 14 April
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