The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2018
Overlong, unfocused and meandering in ways that do not fully avoid soap opera territory, Fanny And Alexander is held together by strong performances and an overriding sympathy for all its characters, even the villains.
Stephen Beresford has adapted Ingmar Bergman's filmscript into a three-and-a-half-hour drama that divides with remarkable neatness into three acts of separate subjects and styles.
The title characters are the children/grandchildren/niece and nephew of an extended family who run and act in a provincial theatre. (Though never spoken, the implication is that the actors are not very good, but welcome and honoured as all the town has.)
Act One introduces us to the family, led by the matriarch played with easy charm and iron will by Penelope Wilton. One of the marriages in the middle generation is loveless, one is loving but doesn't keep the husband from chasing the nanny, one (the children's parents) is marred only by the fact that the wife is an outsider who never really feels at home in the theatre.
Her husband dies, and after a decent interval the widow (Catherine Walker) marries the local bishop (Kevin Doyle), hoping to find a more real world in his faith and solidity.
Act Two generally drops the light comedy of the family to follow her and the children into a nightmare as she discovers her new husband is a cold, self-righteous fanatic who beats the children and holds her captive.
Act Three finds a way to return them all to the bosom of the family, but through a lot of abruptly-introduced magic, mysticism and metaphysical philosophising that clashes with the tone of what came before.
Much of the middle act and all of the secondary plot lines (and the play's way of cross-cutting among them) have the feel of TV soap opera with a touch of the gothic, and the evil stepfather is certainly imagined as just short of a Panto villain (lacking only that archetype's enjoyment of his own nastiness).
Moreover, Alexander is endowed with mystic powers he doesn't fully control, sensing things he cannot know through other means and carrying on cryptic conversations with Death.
It really shouldn't all hang together, but it almost does, thanks to Max Webster's direction that imbues it all with a reassuring all-will-turn-out-well fairytale atmosphere, and to solid central performances.
Even before the character's life turns dark, Catherine Walker defines the widow/mother by a core of strength and good sense that reassures us she will survive anything, while Kevin Doyle makes clear that the bad guy is not malicious but driven by a warped sense of what is right, and at moments almost as much victim as villain.
Penelope Wilton is given little to do but represent the core of the family, and she brings her unlimited charm and no-nonsense solidity to the service of the play's reassuring atmosphere.
Michael Pennington has a couple of powerful scenes as a family friend, and (judging by the one I saw) the rotating quartet of boys playing Alexander ably carry the weight of being the eyes through which we see everything.
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