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BWW Review: GHOSTS, Royal and Derngate

BWW Review: GHOSTS, Royal and Derngate BWW Review: GHOSTS, Royal and Derngate

Goodness, it is bleak in Rosenwald. From the moment you step into the Royal's auditorium for Mike Poulton's new version of Ibsen's Ghosts, you can hear the incessant rain that is wearing away at Osvald thanks to Richard Hammarton's sound design.

When the safety curtain rises, it's to Mike Britton's set with confined spaces, misty perspex and a sea of green that emphasises the melancholy and misery of the Alving household. It's claustrophobic. It's oppressive. It all bodes.

And then there's the play itself. Poulton's script and Lucy Bailey's direction keep the audience in a state of discomfort and suspense. It plays on the audience's nerves, keeping you on edge and slightly off-balance, as the characters descend into topics and worlds they'd rather not be confronting. It's gripping, but oh so very tense.

Penny Downie manages to create a Helen who is the calm that the madness circles, but also filled with regret and frustration and, by the end, a kind of terror. Her joy at the fate of the orphanage is probably her happiest moment in years.

James Wilby's Pastor Manders is simultaneously sanctimonious and manipulative but also manipulated, vainglorious and unable to live up to the lessons that he preaches. When he first appears, Osvald seems a careless, debonair artist, but Pierro Niel-Mee transforms him into a restless, angry, twitching, stuttering wreck by the close.

It's hard to imagine now how shocking Ghosts must have been in the 1880s. Even today it feels jarring to see a woman in a bustle talking about syphilis with her son, even if he is a bohemian artist.

If all this sounds a bit bleak, don't worry - there is humour here too to break the tension, although even as you laugh you feel a little guilty. And, at the end, you're left with questions and ambiguities and an urgent need to go and get some fresh air - but in a good way. Just as long as it isn't raining outside...

Ghosts continues at Royal and Derngate until 11 May

Photo credit: Sheila Burnett

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