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First Night: Ghosts

First Published 15 January 2014, Last Updated 6 June 2018

With an Evening Standard Award for Best Director and a string of five star reviews under its belt, Richard Eyre’s production of Ghosts had little to prove for its West End transfer.

Henrik Ibsen’s tragic tale, which played at the Almeida Theatre last autumn, has arrived at the Trafalgar Studios in all its tear-jerking, spine-tingling glory, bringing with it many of the performances that were lauded by critics first time around.

Lesley Manville, who was nominated for an Evening Standard Award for her performance as the play’s protagonist Helen Alving, continues to lead the cast with her stunning portrayal of a woman trapped in ‘a university of suffering’ since her marriage to the late captain. Her face quivers, her voice wavers and her body stoops under the burden of her past as the secrets and emotions she tries so hard to conceal threaten to overcome her.

Jack Lowden, seen prior to Ghosts fighting fit in Chariots Of Fire, gives a compelling performance as her diseased son Oswald, whose tragic degeneration at the hands of his father’s inherited syphilis provides the play with unbearable heartbreak. His bottled coping mechanism results in much stumbling and slurring of words, yet his charismatic charm and caring nature still shines through. Never more so than in his fondness of the family’s maid Regina, played beautifully by Charlene McKenna, whose surprise and confusion at being offered Champagne provides one of the most endearing moments of the production.

As much comic relief as it is possible to bring to such a depressing tale is generated by Brian McCardie as carpenter Jacob, whose animated movements and witty dialogue allow the audience a much-needed snigger or two. Adam Kotz, the only cast member new to the production, takes over from Will Keen as the hypocritical pastor, whose ferocious temper and passionate belief in himself proves him to be less of a Christian than he thinks.

Tim Hatley’s designs and Peter Mumford’s lighting only add to the dramatic effect of Eyre’s faultless production. The translucent panelled walls – part mirror, part glass – give the figures behind it a spectral aspect: a physical manifestation of the ghosts that have haunted Helen for decades.

Not recommended for those trying to escape the January blues, Ghosts is nevertheless an enthralling production of a calibre that is hard to beat.

Ghosts originally played at the Almeida Theatre in October 2013 when the following First Night Feature by Charlotte Marshall was published

The huge success of Carrie Cracknell’s Olivier Award nominated A Doll’s House has surely proved that the public appetite for Henrik Ibsen is in no way diminishing as the years, decades and centuries roll on from his lifetime.

With the Hattie Morahan-led production soon to come to the end of its third run, the Almeida theatre is stepping up and successfully catering for demand in the form of Richard Eyre’s similarly accessible new adaptation of Ghosts, which comes complete with a powerhouse performance from the consistently excellent Lesley Manville.

Much like A Doll’s House, Ghosts’ strength lies in the harrowing portrayal of the central female character, Manville’s Helene Alving, a woman sentenced to a miserable marriage to a philandering man who, even in death, condemns her to keep his wicked secrets and take care of the scandalous repercussions of his “joie de vivre”.

With a table full of pamphlets on equal marriage and a worldly artist son who has long since fled the barren landscape of his remote family home, Ghosts feels revolutionary for its time with whispers of socialist ideals and characters unafraid to voice their desire for change. But as Tim Hatley’s atmospheric lighting grows gloomier as the play progresses in its famous downward spiral of dramatic events, redemption and happiness are stopped brutally in their tracks.

By the play’s dark conclusion, you can’t help but feel for the pale, sweaty cast who appear for the curtain call, each tasked with intense performances and delivery of a rollercoaster storyline with more twists and turns than an episode of EastEnders; the tales of infidelity, whoring, opium, not to mention impure thoughts from Will Keen’s Pastor Manders, satisfyingly drawing audible gasps of shock from one group of engrossed school children present at the performance I attended.

Manville’s captivating performance undoubtedly cements the production’s fervidity. Her portrayal of a woman ahead of her time, who follows her passions – one scene resulting in particularly heart-wrenching rejection – conceals her husband’s wrongdoings with steely strength and protects her son with lioness rage, is all-consuming and emotionally battering.

In contrast Keen’s take on her utterly unsuitable object of affections is one of anxious repression, his hands continually patting away the beads of sweat as her presence unravels his devotion to his Old Testament, cruel deity, and a terror at the speedily changing world beyond the desperate house’s gloomy windows portrayed by the actor with compelling desperation.

Eyre’s compelling production, which sticks religiously – no pun intended – to its traditional setting, lets the story unravel in its ferocious manner with few distractions, save for Hatley’s elegant set, which takes the title literally; two panels of distressed glass in between which the characters transform into ghostly figures destined to haunt Helene forever more.


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