The West End transfer of All About Eve, Ivo van Hove’s stylish adaption of the 1949 film, has opened on the expansive Noel Coward Theatre stage – and we’ve never seen so much of it.
The innards of the theatre are revealed, complete with racks of costumes and the star’s dressing room mirror framed by lights: every little girl’s dream. We see behind the facade: the smooth operators and well-dressed puppeteers, purveyors of power games, blackmail and bitterness. All About Eve is less a love letter to showbiz, more an illicit and slightly sick-making sext.
Gillian Anderson is superb as the enigmatic leading lady of the theatre Margo Channing, who’s star (we’re meant to believe) is fading. Anderson’s Margo flickers with a cold, delicate ferocity, ever-so-carefully exposing her insecurities and dialling her inner diva all the way up to ten when the moment calls for it.
Opposite Anderson, Lily James is delightful as sugary sweet Eve, full of platitudes and false modesty. James wears her character’s power and influence lightly. It’s a thrill to watch the power play develop between Margo and Eve, and their partners, friends and sworn enemies (Monica Dolan is excellent as Karen, the solid core of this web of influence). Loyalty and simmering resentment dance on a knife edge; Margo’s friends love her and they hate her, and they both pity and underestimate Eve.
But in the end, who can say who has the last laugh other than the men – critic Addison de Wit (Stanley Townsend) and Margo’s boyfriend Bill Sampson (Julian Ovenden) – who ultimately succeed in bringing the two women into line.
Set in feminine pinks and reds, the fictional theatre is a patriarchy in microcosm. Van Hove’s production tells us that we must, sadly, conclude that the strongest arm (physically and metaphorically) will always win. Even in the supposed heydey of actresses, when a star was supposed to hold all the cards, her power is an illusion; lasting only long as her youthful looks. Ageism in theatre and film is still a disturbingly under-discussed issue, with a serious lack of roles for women ‘over a certain age’.
This adaptation feels like a missed opportunity to explore All About Eve’s litany of mid-century tropes, which are absurdly sexist under close examination. An example: Eve attempts to seduce Bill as way to undermine Margo, yes, but she’s a powerful woman in a confined space; her sexuality is one of a limited number of weapons in her arsenal.
The drama pits the powerful forces of Eve’s ambition and Margot’s jealousy against each other. But there’s nothing wrong a woman having ambition. ‘Ambitious’ used to be an insult when used to describe a woman, much like ‘shrewd’. But it’s not 1949 any more and it’s not Eve’s ambition that we should decry, but the confines of an industry which offer her precious few ways to get ahead.
However, a major strength of the production is Van Hove’s trademark multimedia projections which have found their calling in this production. Here, mirrors and cameras are deployed to great effect to examine the life lived under a spotlight and explore the duplicitous natures of our characters.
This also serves to dissect the phenomenon of the public versus the private self, broadcasting the most private and vulnerable moments of people who are paid to pretend. Margo suffers the tragedy of the Othello neurosis, both in that she is deceived by those she trusts, and in that she fails to draw a distinction between her public persona and her private life until the mask does start to slip.
All About Eve is a sophisticated and stirring revival of a classic, but misses the opportunity to probe deeper into the story’s troubling themes.
Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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