Currently it’s having a crack at Ingmar Bergman, the Godfather of Scandi Noir whose centenary year it is. Fanny and Alexander is the piece they’ve chosen to play with and it’s a wise choice. The story of a theatrical family whose lavish, bohemian life is thrown into austere, frightening chaos when a Bishop marries into the family this is, in many ways, a piece made for the stage as much as the screen.
In an interesting introduction to an otherwise underwhelming programme (what have you done to your programmes, Old Vic?) Artistic Director Matthew Warchus describes Fanny and Alexander as an adult fairytale which is very fitting. As that moniker implies, it does make for a slightly odd beast in terms of plot and theme, as all the best fairytales are; part love letter to the power of the theatre, part family comedy, part psychological thriller, with some magic and a bit of a ghost story chucked in for good measure.
As a love letter to the theatre and a family comedy it works completely. Some of the magic is magical too. But is it an effective thriller? I’m not sure. It can ramp up the tension for sure, but for me never quite reaches the heights (or depths) of darkness and fear that it needs to.
Much of the credit for what works - and little of the criticism for what doesn’t - belongs to Stephen Beresford’s adaptation. It’s funny and warm and cutting and creepy. The bits on why the theatre is great were, perhaps inevitably, my favourite. They also felt extraordinarily pertinent without the meerest hint of an actual contemporary reference. The comedy is perfectly judged, expertly constructed and just very funny. There are some cracking and quotable lines (though whether these are Beresford or Bergman I confess I don’t know): “We are all born to play our part; some of us do it sloppily, some of us with tremendous style”, “There is no shame in deriving pleasure from this little world”. And those are just the ones I attempted to scribble down, possibly incorrectly, in the dark. There’s no question that this is an extremely well written piece of theatre.
It also looks and sounds amazing. Tom Pye’s design is effective and cleverly evocative. I especially loved the ‘box’ set which served as both the Bishop’s terrible palace and the Ekdahl family’s happy, loving summer home - the way that this set was used, alongside some gorgeous lighting, to transform between the awful and the lovely with the slightest of swap in props and move of a spotlight was really well done (the way the Bishop is so frequently backlit to cast a long shadow and/or silhouetted is probably the scariest thing about him too). The use of Alex Baranowski’s music and Tom Gibbons’ sound design is great, especially when it’s really cranking up the tension. Max Webster’s direction is, mercifully, sprightly. The three and a half hour (two intervals) run time never seems to drag for an instant.
For all this, in the darker moments the production never quite gets to where it needs. It feels like, for all the excellent stuff that’s going on, it holds something back and never allows itself to go truly horrific. I sort of understand the thought process here I think: it would be very easy for some of these scenes (and by ‘these scenes’ I essentially mean every scene with the Bishop after the first interval) to drift into treacly melodrama or Hammer Horror camp so let’s try and do something more subtle. Thing is, for me, it’s too subtle. Too controlled. This is evident in some of the production choices and more evident still in Kevin Doyle’s performance of the role, which doesn’t really work for me. He’s compelling and charismatic but not scary. Irritating, a cartoon villain. His Bishop feels a bit like someone who just needs a good slap rather than a truly frightening and powerful character. This isn’t an outright criticism of his performance either, it’s difficult to see how else the character could have been conceived within the bounds this production sets on its darker moments.
Elsewhere, the acting is superb; and no more so than Queen of the Show Penelope Wilton. She is masterful - waspish, sassy, extremely funny but also full of heart. It’s a big joyful hug of a performance and sheer class. Similarly, Michael Pennington’s gloriously old school performance, full of depth and pathos, is lovely to watch. You really miss these two when they’re not on stage. Jonathan Slinger - increasingly one of my favourite actors - provides some much needed comic relief and scene stealing as a loveableish philanderer, delivering two of the most enjoyable set piece speeches of the show. And, in a show where the titular characters are both children, the quality of the child actors is really something, particularly as these are difficult and often physically and emotionally unpleasant parts. Guillermo Bedward’s Alexander - the more difficult, but also more fun, of the two parts by some measure - is particularly impressive. I get the feeling he enjoys all the swearing a lot (boy after my own heart).
Fanny and Alexander is a slightly weird but hugely enjoyable show. It’s a beautiful hymn to the power of theatre, if not a particularly scary thriller, and Penelope Wilton is worth the price of a ticket more or less on her own. Worth your time, all three and a half hours of it.
Fanny and Alexander is at the Old Vic until 14th April.