This adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's 1982 film is visually impactful but fails to translate successfully to stage.
Matthew Warchus' Old Vic is once again being playful and inventive with its programme, taking the far-from-safe gamble that this Ingmar Bergman film could be adapted for the theatre. The metamorphosis of a happy, loving family into a decidedly unhappy one thanks to death and a badly judged re-marriage is undoubtedly an apt – if not necessarily exciting – subject for theatre. But what worked on film – notably the magic realism – and the rather basic plot are exposed on stage.
The production is beautifully designed, with an almost ever-changing set shifting from the luxurious Ekdahl house to their theatre, to the austere Bishop's castle, to a bewitching puppet workshop. And the cast of misfits who make up the Ekdahl family are entertaining to watch. Penelope Wilton is of particular note, playing a Swedish version of her role in Downtown Abbey very well. Misha Handley as Alexander is highly accomplished, switching his demeanour easily from that of a jovial child seemingly unencumbered by worries to a boy tortured by his dreams and his stepfather. Katie Simons as Fanny has less of a role to play but played it well, although her part did leave you wondering whether Fanny deserves equal billing with Alexander in the title.
Alexander jokes at the start of the play that the audience is about to watch the 'longest play they've ever seen'. The audience laughs – nervously. Whilst it most likely isn't, it might feel that way by the end of three and a half hours. Some plays are that length for good reason; Fanny & Alexander is not one of them, especially as it is curiously lacking in purpose and resonance. The only meaning I could derive from it was when Gustav Adolf Ekdahl declares towards the end that there is 'No shame deriving pleasure from this world'. We can all drink to that.