Ghosts @ Duchess Theatre, London

cast list
Lesley Sharp, Iain Glen, Harry Treadaway, Jessica Raine, Malcolm Storry

directed by
Iain Glen
Ghosts marks the directorial debut of veteran stage and screen actor Iain Glen, who also takes a starring role. In a cast populated, of not with famous names, with mostly recognisable faces, he plays Pastor Manders opposite Lesley Sharps Mrs Alving in Frank McGuinness’ new version of the Ibsen classic.

Usually such a strong stage actor, it seems here that the dual role is stretching Glen too thin, despite the assistance of associate director Amelia Sears.

Hampered by a comedy beard and an accent that wanders from Ireland to Scotland and back again via half a dozen US states, he veers between comedy and drama without ever seeming to get to the heart of the character.
Sharp, in contrast, plays the widowed Mrs Alving as a winning combination of steely determination and inner torment, haunted by the ghosts of the past and the repercussions of her own decisions, and ultimately willing to sacrifice everything she believes in for the happiness of her son.

It’s a shame, then, that she is so ill-served by McGuinness uneven adaptation. Like his director, McGuinness seems unable to get a grip on his characters, with a result that many scenes feel undercharged. The climatic event of the orphanage fire has less impact than it should, and many of the exchanges feel stagey and trite, when they should be probing at faith, the meaning of duty against the longing for freedom and how the sins of the father (and mother) are visited on their children.

This unevenness is reflected in the performances. Harry Treadaway plays Sharps son Oswald with the floppy haired, gangly grace of an emo pop star, though his predicament occasionally teeters toward the ridiculous (with even the best intentions, it’s hard not to laugh when a character starts pulling apart flowers and throwing them about). His ambiguity regarding his life in Paris is nicely played, as he moves between defending the “alternative” lifestyles enjoyed there with blaming his disease on his indulgence in these. His selfishness in wanting maid Regine as a panacea for his ills, no matter the presumed effect on her life, gives him a wilful edge unknowingly reminiscent of his late father’s intemperance, and nicely reminds us that it is not only in the physical that his inheritance is cursed.

Not long out of RADA, Jessica Raine is pleasingly spunky and sharp as a maid with her mind on more than a life of service, reluctant to be hemmed in by her opportunistic father Engstrand (played solidly by Malcolm Storry, albeit with an accent almost as peripatetic as Glen’s).

Stephen Brimson Lewis classical yet clinical set – the interior of Mrs Alving’s house – is simple but effective, the sound of unrelenting rain from the outside a constant reminder of the oppressive world of the characters, even if on the night I was there also uncomfortably recall the grim London evening the audience was seeking escape from. But then, as the play is at pains to remind us, escape is never really possible.

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