All About Eve review: Gillian Anderson is laser-tongued ★★★★

Gillian Anderson and Lily James shine in director Ivo van Hove's production of the 1950s film

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Following his adaptation of Network — the Oscar-winning satire on television news — for the National Theatre, director Ivo van Hove takes on another Hollywood classic. The six-times Oscar winner starred Bette Davis as sharp-tongued actress Margo Channing who’s under threat from a young pretender and the onset of middle age in what was an acerbic portrayal of theatrical types.

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While the director has put his own unique stamp on this stage version and played with structure for a theatre setting, he has wisely not fiddled too much with Joseph L Mankiewicz’s superb screenplay and the razor-sharp one-liners cut as deep as they ever did, including the famous, “fasten your safety belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”.

Stepping into the Davis role is Gillian Anderson, still investing Margo with a tongue like a laser but also giving the character a vulnerability that wasn’t as evident on screen.

The usually brittle and cynical Margo finds herself touched by the story of Eve Harrington (Lily James), a Channing superfan who is at the stage door every night and at every performance, not only to worship at the feet of her idol, but as an escape from an apparent tragic life.

But Eve has a bigger, cunning plan and pretty soon she has ingratiated herself into Margo’s inner circle and is working as unpaid assistant to the star, making herself indispensable by remembering every detail like booking a birthday phone call on Margo’s behalf to her partner Bill (Julian Ovenden) who is away directing in Hollywood. Everyone falls under the shrewish Eve’s spell so that when Margo finally begins to see Eve for what she is, even those closest to her dismiss it as paranoia and insecurity about her advancing years. Clearing the path for Eve to outbitch the bitch.

Van Hove gets around the fact that this is a screenplay by making his production very cinematic. The use of giant video screens dominates proceedings, a device that sometimes works brilliantly, as in some pre-shot time lapse sequences, but often becomes intrusive and gimmicky; a fairly conventional restaurant scene for some inexplicable reason has the distraction of cameraman and rig constantly circling the actors.

The use of video works best when depicting “meanwhile”, giving us the chance to witness contrasting events in parallel time. As guests verbally spar and bicker at Bill’s birthday party we see that a distressed Margo is throwing up in the bathroom.

Anderson is quite brilliant, cutting people off at the knees with a barbed comment one minute, but then a figure of crushing vulnerability the next.

Lily James is excellent as sweet Eve, but perhaps not so convincing when the viper finally shows her fangs.

Excellent support comes from Monica Dolan as Karen, who narrates proceedings and is only in this circle by virtue of being married to playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone). But blessed with some of the best lines and delivering them with delicious aplomb is Stanley Townsend as droll critic Addsion DeWitt. You could almost hear the buttocks clenching on press night as he offered; “I’m as essential to the theatre as ants are to a picnic”.

But ultimately this is Anderson’s show and directorial indulgences aside, she ensures this is far from a bumpy night.

Tony Peters

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre and is currently booking until 4 May. It will also be broadcast live to 700 UK cinemas on Thursday 11 April  http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout34-all-about-eve

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