The Old Vic Theatre, London – until 12 May 2018
It may be better not to have seen the movie Fanny & Alexander. Coming to the stage version untainted you’ll have a stronger chance to enjoy an exuberant energy and ribald theatricality that doesn’t really characterise Bergman films. In the hands of adapter Stephen Beresford and director Max Webster it’s effectively A Little Night Music without the songs but with a side serving of child abuse even Sondheim might have found too fiddly to score.
The vision of an extended 11-strong family seen through the eyes and nightmares of its youngest grandchildren is effectively realised through both the direction and design, but it’s the performances that drive this marvellous production along and keep you continuously and eagerly engaged across three and a half hours.
The Christmas jollity of the first act feels Dickensian, although I think it’s about 1907, and the fondly embracing family and its bantering servants are very close to the Armfeldts in A Little Night Music, but it’s all a setup for the contrast when someone dies and the children move to the austere house of a Bishop whose puritanical moralising represents everything Bergman despised in the church.
Kevin Doyle is an excellent actor, with a nice line in flawed characters from the hapless footman Molesley in Downton Abbey to Geoff the serial killer in Scott and Bailey. There are anguished moments when you’d wish Maggie Smith would appear and tell him to pull himself together, but there are many more where you are awed by the range of his performance. How he manages both to be stern and sadistic as the bishop, but also to reveal the unscripted inner torment of a man haunted by bad memories and steeled to acts of self-preservation. The scene when he puts his hand in seven-year-old Alexander’s bed and pulls out a soft toy is perfectly chilling.
Bearing all before her is his Downton bandmate Penelope Wilton. It is she who makes the production cohere and she really bears all before her as the salmon-bodiced matriarch of the theatre-owning dynasty. She is the grandparent we’d all wish to have, or wish to be: wise, resourceful, brilliant at talking to small children and with a taste for late love. Her character was once a popular actress, now choosing retirement and she absolutely owns it – I now want her to play all popular actresses approaching retirement from Irina in The Seagull to Hay Fever’s Judith Bliss.
To paraphrase a critic quoted in that Coward play – ‘if ignorance is Wilton, ‘tis folly to be wise’.