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A CurtainUp London Review
Fanny and Alexander

"You were a sweet lover. You were like wild strawberries." — Helena
Fanny and Alexander
The Cast (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
I read somewhere that when it was made in 1982, Fanny and Alexander was the second commercial film ever running at 5 hours and 12 minutes. Bergman made a shorter version, a mere 188 minutes and this adaptation for theatre could fit that version coming in at three and a half hours with two intervals. Despite its length the movie won awards at the time.

The first act feels like a family saga, with a few theatrical jokes and allusions because it is set within a theatre company where the matriarch and owner Mrs Helena Ekdahl (Penelope Wilton) has involved her three sons in the family business. The principal is Oscar Ekdahl (Sargon Yelda) who, in middle years, is still playing Hamlet, with his mother as Gertrude, and his wife Emilie (Catherine Walker) as Ophelia. Helena's friend and sometime lover is the magician Isaak Jacobs (Michael Pennington). Alexander (Guillermo Bedward, Kit Connor, Jack Falk, Misha Handley) and Fanny (Zaris Angel Hator, Amy Jayne, Molly Shenker, Katie Simons) and are the children of Oscar and Emilie. Oscar isn't Fanny's father but he raises the child as his own. Fanny is the result of his wife's affair with an unknown man.

We see a nativity play and an except from another play where the 19th century, arm waving style of exaggerated acting predominates. We learn that Alexander is prone to fantasy and has visions of the figure of Death (Michael Pennington) and we have to guess who Death's intended victim might be. It is in fact Oscar who has a stroke while rehearsing and we have the theatricality of the funeral of a man of the theatre.

For all its dramatic context, at this stage Fanny and Alexander feels rather lacking in drama, like an overly long family saga in which we have to wait for anything other than incidental anecdotes to occur. For instance, anecdotally, Uncle Carl's skill (Thomas Arnold) is setting fire to his farts while not being set on fire by his German wife Lydia (Karina Fernandez) or Uncle Gustav Adolph Ekdahl's infidelity with Maj (Vivien Oparah) the children's nursemaid. Gustav's wife Alma (Lolita Chakrabarti) makes an impression of severity and sourness and she slaps the maid.

In the middle act the production becomes much, much darker like one of those original French fairy tales which inspired the Brother Grimm as Oscar's widow Emilie decides to leave the theatre and marry Bishop Edvard Vergerus (a well cast and creepy Kevin Doyle). She takes the children away from their home to live in the bishop's oddly named palace, think frugality rather than opulence, in Upsala. He insists on a curious condition that all three of his new family should leave behind them every single possession. We start to understand the significance of the litany of lavish menus that were recited to us in the Ekdahl household in the first act— the poached salmon, the venison, exquisite sauces, all delicious and tempting — when we see what they will eat in the bishop's dining room, cabbage soup, black bread and water.

At the table in this monochrome setting where the Ekdahl children are still wearing black from their father's funeral, we meet an aged wheelchair bound, blind aunt and the bishop's very tall and scary sister, Else Vergerus (Lolita Chakrabarti) who insists that the children must eat every spoonful of the disgusting food or face punishment. This is the stuff of nightmares. The dining room walls are scrubbed, white washed wood, the lighting severe and the figures as dark as the children's environment has become. As the aunt, Lolita Chakrabarti looks terrifying, a hair style of a wound around grey plait and her height emphasizing her dour severity. The bishop's regime is austerity and terrible punishments, caning, castor oil or being locked alone in the haunted attic, are the choices.

Alexander's imagination as to what happened to the drowned daughters of the bishop's first marriage gets him into a harrowing scene of corporal punishment. The bishop reminded me of the mealy, mouthed stereotypical Calvinist minister from Scandinavia, Parson Manders of Ghosts, so if anyone is casting Ghosts, put Kevin Doyle at the top of your list! I liked this change of trajectory in the middle act to a story of Bergman's remembered pain from his own childhood.

Isaak Jacobi is the hero of the final act and there is a wonderful scene for family mediators as Oscar's brothers Carl and Gustav Adolf try to negotiate for their sister in law, Emilie's release from the bishop. Carl's approach is all consideration and politeness while Gustav just loses it and very funnily, threatens violence. Sadly neither approach works. We are reminded that despite Sweden's reputation today for sexual equality, in the 19th century the men have all the power. There is another side story from Isaak about mountains and streams and a sad parade of the cast trail towards the mysterious destination that is another Bergman fixation, Death.

The performances are sound, the adaptation from Stephen Beresford in keeping with the original slows the dramatic action in places but the director Max Webster shows great promise. Have supper first or the Swedish menus will make you hungry!

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Fanny and Alexander
Adapted by by Stephen Beresford
Based on the film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Directed by Max Webster
Starring: Penelope Wilton, Kevin Doyle, Michael Pennington, Jonathan Slinger, Catherine Walker, Lolita Chakrabarti, Sargon Yelda, Thomas Arnold
With: Gloria Obianyo, Hannah James Scott, Karina Fernandez, Gary MacKay, Vivien Oparah, Annie Firbank, Tim Lewis, Matt Gavan, Guillermo Bedward, Kit Connor, Jack Falk, Misha Handley, Zaris Angel Hator, Amy Jayne, Molly Shenker, Katie Simons
Set Design: Tom Pye
Costume Design: Laura Hopkins
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Tom Gibbons
Illusion: Ben Hart
Director of Movement: Toby Sedgwick
Running time: Three hours 30 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 14th April 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th March 2018 performance at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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Fanny and Alexander