BWW Reviews: GHOSTS, Rose Theatre Kingston, September 25 2013
There's a flat, plain quality to Stephen Unwin's translation of Ibsen's still controversial classic that jars against the volcanic emotions on stage, the contrast drawing the audience ever deeper into the hell of an incongruously agreeable upper-middle class sitting room. If the play is about Philip Larkin's famous poem's first line, "They f*** you up, your mum and dad" this production, returning to Edvard Munch's 1906 set designs, is about stripping everything back to lay bare the relationships between men and women, mothers and sons - it's not a pretty sight.
But it is riveting drama. Unwin, also directing in his last production before leaving the Rose Theatre, gets a grand send-off with five tremendous performances. Florence Hall, with a cod Scottish accent and an irresistible coquettishness, has something of Britt Ekland in the Wicker Man about her Regina - and has roughly the same effect on the men of another remote island. Her "father", Engstrand, is played by Pip Donaghy as a Dickensian turn, hobbling on one leg, but always with his hand out. Patrick Drury gives a Pastor Manders whose hypocrisy provoked a combination of laughs and gasps, banality masking an all-encompassing misanthropy. If you met Patrick in the street outside and he gave you his Manders look, you'd be hard pushed not to throw him in the river.
Despite all that excellence, Ghosts turns on the mother-son relationship between Osvald and Mrs Alving. Mark Quarterley and Kelly Hunter tread perilously close to The Edge of melodramatic overkill, but never stop being believable as the stricken son and regretful mother. Their lives, years later, still blighted to destruction by the morality of a God-fearing island community and the immorality of a long dead philandering father / husband, crash before us in slow motion - sometimes it's difficult not to feel the guilt of rubberneckers ogling a smash on the motorway. Ms Hunter brings out the mother's tragedy with such skill that one feels it more sharply than that of her doomed son's, but I suspect that reaction may have something to do with my age. For this is a play that pokes at one's own identity as a parent, a son, a spouse - so keep some happy memories close by for the interval.
Though both Engstrand and Manders have a bleak humour about them, it's no feelgood feast down by the Thames. But, if it's a production that will please die-hard Ibsen fans, it'll also please fans of Eastenders too - for this is classic theatre at its most accessible. Just don't expect them to live happily ever after.