Review – Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic

Friday 9 March 2018

A front of curtain prologue, performed by a precocious whippersnapper warning us that we are about to see “the longest play ever” was never going to be music to our ears.

But we had been warned. Fanny & Alexander was running close to 4 hours at early previews. Max Webster‘s production is now a tighter Fanny at a relatively sprightly 3 and a half hours.

Stephen Beresford‘s version of Ingmar Bergman’s film (which was cut down from the original 312 minute TV series) gets off to a slightly shaky start. A procession of characters is introduced by microphoned narrators like arrivals at Prince Charming’s ball. Far too many of the Swedish family Ekdahl to take in at one sitting, then there’s their servants. Phil struggled to remember exactly how they all related to each other let alone get his noggin around their Skandi names.

And yet, and yet, at roughly 15 minutes in we’re treated to a Christmas banquet and things start to gel. Dame Penelope Wilton, is fabulously endearing and often funny as the matriarch of a theatre-owning acting family. She’s an actress on the verge of retirement, except that she can’t quite give up the stage. Of course she can’t. They never can. She has three sons and three daughters-in-law and then there’s the grandchildren, Alexander and Fanny, whose lives change abruptly when the family circumstances change.

Can you hear Phil tiptoeing around the plot? He’s trying to be as light on his feet as possible here because one of the great pleasures, for him, was having no idea what was going to happen next. He thought he’d seen the film but he obviously hadn’t as what unfolded was as shocking as it was gripping whilst occasionally managing to be laugh out loud amusing. Not something you expect from a Bergman.

The audience let out occasional involuntary gasps at what happens to Fanny and Alexander. One moment, involving a hidden teddy bear, had our little party squirming in our seats as it cleverly hinted at something much more sinister than it proved to be. A scene where Jonathan Slinger and Thomas Arnold as (respectively) lecherous and flatulant uncles try to resolve the children’s awful predicament led to a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. Even Phil put his hands together to clap, stopping himself just in time when he realised he doesn’t really do that kind of thing (except in musicals of course).

It’s not giving too much away to say that Kevin Doyle‘s hideously troubled and evil Bishop Edvard is a massive contrast to his performance as Dame Penny’s butler Mosely in Downton. Quite a range. Quite impressive. It could have been moustache-twirling pantomime villainry but Doyle manages something much subtler than that.

Mrs Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti is chilling in one of her roles as Edvard’s Mrs Danverish sister. And despite Phil’s initial misgivings the boy, whoever he was (there are four playing Alexander) is splendid in an role that requires considerable heavy-lifting for a child. There are four girls too but Fanny is a less significant part.

Tom Pye’s fairly simple sets effectively suggest the multiple locations and the contrast between opulence and austerity. There are a few effective illusions plus Michael Pennington chasing a bit of Wilton skirt.

It’s a shame it’s not selling. It’s one of the best things currently around with a fantastic narrative and sturdily performed. We had great stalls seats for £20, an offer which included a drink. We saved our freebie for the second interval despite wondering if we’d even make it that far. It certainly doesn’t need 2 intervals.


Phil, as ever, had his dander raised by an emailed instruction from the Old Vic. “Always keep your tickets or phone on you when re-entering the auditorium as you will be asked to show your ticket to one of our ushers.” Since there are no announcements about turning off devices just before the show begins this really sends out the wrong message.

And, if you do print your own tickets, why can’t they all come out on one page rather than three separate ones? And why not make them black and white automatically rather than having to adjust your printer’s settings? Just saying.





6 Responses to “Review – Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic”

  1. Nicola Barranger Says:

    Yes, it’s an enormous shame that apparently tickets aren’t selling. This is one of the best evenings I’ve had at the theatre for a long time. However I suspect that The Old Vic’s branding isn’t helping. Just the huge lettering of the name of the play isn’t necessarily going to sell a vibrant, colourful, funny, thought provoking period costumed play. I’d happily sit through the 3.5 hours again, as the pace doesn’t drop a beat, there is barely time to draw breath between scenes and yes, there is a huge cast to get your head around in the first scene, but all becomes very clear, very quickly. Hats off to the young lad who played Alexander last Monday evening. To have someone so young, take such a central role was a huge achievement.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Completely agree about the dreary uninspirational branding. What are they thinking? And re Alexander, we were there on Monday too so saw the same extraordinary boy.

  2. JA139 Says:

    Having seen the film several times – time was the BBC ran it at Christmas – and loved it, I was not going to see this until I got the said offer of £20 + drink. However, it is a brilliant evening and the 3.5 hours flew by and I can thoroughly recommend it. One cavil for me is the idiotic ‘colour-blind’ casting. Sweden 100 years ago was pretty much 100% white, now brothers, sisters, daughters and maids are all in the melting pot. Admittedly, there are hints that Fanny has a different father but still. Not an effective enough illusion for me.

  3. margarita Says:

    I may – just may – change my view of blind casting (I agree with the previous comment) when we have a production of PORGY AND BESS with one or other played by a white actor. Why shouldn’t ‘colour blind casting’ work both ways?

    Meanwhile, I’ve run out of patience with these highly PC non-credible mixups.

  4. Ethel Malley Says:

    Glad to hear people enjoyed this production.
    I might however offer a suggestion as to the apparent reluctance of (some) theatregoers to buy tickets.

    I love the films of Ingmar Bergman; however, one of my most scarring experiences in the cinema was sitting through the feature version of FANNY AND ALEXANDER, with its almost three hours of winsome kiddies, farty uncles and generally slightly undercast family members (no Liv Ullmann, no Max Von Sydow, no Bibi Andersson). I sat stony-faced for over two and a half hours, surrounded by a cooing audience.

    I wonder if there are more of me than the generally ecstatic reviews of the film let on, and I feel provisionally vindicated all these years later.

    And what’s with this craze for stage productions of highly regarded films of the past (PERSONA, THE DAMNED, NETWORK). Am I alone in finding this a questionable practise?

  5. Sandown Says:

    Good to see someone raising the issue of “colour-blind casting.” Up to now, it has been the subsidised theatre that has gone in for this kind of thing — hence the NT’s current Amadeus, or the recent RSC production set in the time of Queen Anne, with John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, being played by an African.

    Being subsidised, they can afford to ignore audience expectation, together with historical plausibility, and indeed the original text. The taxpayer-funded BBC is even worse.

    But now it is happening in the West End, where audiences are paying large sums of their own money, and should expect to see plays done properly. For example, the recent production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was partly spoilt by the casting of two black actors — both of whom over-acted dreadfully– as nineteenth century British aristocrats.

    For “Fanny and Alexander”, the Old Vic was charging £65.00 for a standard ticket, so it is hardly surprising that they are having to reduce their prices by two-thirds — presumably because their production is more than half unconvincing.

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