Reviewed by Tony Peters
For a 186-year-old playwright Henrik Ibsen is having quite a year.
The Young Vic production of A Doll’s House featuring a stunning performance from Hattie Morahan has transferred to the West End with huge critical acclaim, and now Richard Eyre’s adaptation of the author’s Ghosts at the Almeida matches it for sheer spellbinding drama — with another first rate performance, this time from Lesley Manville, at its heart.
Helene Alving (Manville) is planning to build an orphanage in memory of her late husband Captain Alving, aided by the family’s long-time religious and moral guardian Pastor Manders (Will Keen).
But Helene’s act of philanthropy has an ulterior motive. Her husband was not the fine figure of a man that everyone (including Manders) believed him to be. He was abusive, a drunk and a serial adulterer — a secret that Helen has lived with for years. Her plan to use her husband’s money for the orphanage is so that her son Oswald (Jack Lowdon), just returned from abroad, doesn’t inherit anything of his father’s.
But as is usually the case, family secrets never stay secret for long and the repercussions of the late captain’s life come back to haunt the family.
Performances here are superb throughout. Will Keen’s portrayal of Manders sums up the misguided, even hypocritical, stance that can blight the lives of those who slavishly follow religion. He starts as a rather pompous moral guardian, but ultimately is too weak to handle Helene’s revelations.
As for Oswald, his life is doomed as the sins of the father are truly visited upon the son, and Jack Lowdon superbly captures his descent from bluff bohemian to a tragic figure devastated by lost love and disease.
Towering above them all though is Lesley Manville who pitches her performance as the stoic, but ultimately broken Helene perfectly. Her final scenes with Oswald are heartbreaking.
Richard Eyre’s decision to run the play without an interval is a masterstroke as it allows the tension to build, although I imagine that most of the audience were as exhausted as the characters by the end it’s all so much of an emotional rollercoaster.
If you’re looking for happy endings and neat resolutions you won’t find them here, but if you’re looking for a superbly acted, expertly directed piece of theatre Ghosts really shouldn’t be missed.
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted and directed by Richard Eyre
Helene Alving: Lesley Manville
Pastor Manders: Will Keen
Oswald Alving: Jack Lowdon
Regina Engstrand: Charlene McKenna
Jacob Engstrand: Brian McCardie