On hearing that Fanny & Alexander, Stephen Beresford’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, runs for 3hrs 30mins, I was rather concerned that I’d booked a ticket. This concern wasn’t diminished at the start when the sailor suited boy, Alexander, comes down stage to gleefully tell us that we’re about to witness the longest play in the history of the world …. Aaagh!
However, there was no need for concern as this play concerning actors playing actors is an absolute joy, not least because the wonderful Penelope Wilton plays a major part. She is sublime. Actually, the whole cast are excellent and Max Webster’s direction ensures that the entire play goes at such a lick that the time whizzes by.
Fanny & Alexander’s Swedish family, the Ekdahls are a bunch of warm hearted, extravagant exhibitionists who, when not showing off with their amateur theatricals, like nothing better than to sit down to over the top, lengthy dinners. The play is set in the early 20th century in the Swedish town of Uppsala and, as the title suggests centres around the two children of Carl and Emilie Ekdahl. The couple run their own theatre which, to a large extent, is overseen by Penelope Wilton’s matriarchal Helena Ekdahl. But when Carl suddenly dies, the fun and laughter dissipates as the rather distant Emilie marries the Bishop of Upsala, bringing Fanny & Alexander’s idyllic childhood to an abrupt end. The step father is the polar opposite of the imaginative, outgoing Carl. Dour and puritanical, Edward frowns upon Alexander’s delight in over the top storytelling, denouncing the boy as a liar who needs strict disciplining.
The mood of the play from light-hearted comedy to drama is the result of Edward’s desire to rid his stepchildren (especially Alexander) of, as he sees it, their irreligious behaviour. The punishments become more and more sinister, the children more and more unhappy and Emilie more and more disillusioned.
Luckily, Kevin Doyle’s Bishop isn’t just a two dimensional ‘baddie’. He excellently shows us that Edward’s raison d’etre is to uphold his Lutheran Protestant values, not only in himself but also his new family. He has no time for any kind of playfulness, especially the unconventional kind so beloved of the Ekdahl’s.
The extended Ekdahl family are, likewise, brilliantly brought to life by the large cast, especially Jonathan Slinger as the larger than life, Uncle Gustav and Michael Pennington’s wily and cunning Isak Jacob.
However, it is the magnificent Penelope Wilton who ultimately steals the show. Her comic timing is as spot on as ever and we are never in any doubt that this wise woman will make sure that all will be well. Imperious she may be but there is no doubting the passion she has for her family. When Alexander asks why people can’t be happy all the time and why happiness always turns to unhappiness sooner or later, she asks if he wants the adult answer. After a longish pause, following his acquiescent nod, she says, “I don’t know”.
Fanny & Alexander is semi-autobiographical, as Alexander, Fanny and Bishop Edward are based on Ingmar Bergman, his sister Margareta and father Erik Bergman respectively. It is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most successful films and, thanks to this production, has transferred beautifully to the theatre.