“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Classic film fans will recall the incomparable Bette Davis hogging the screen as Margo Channing. It’s a hard act to follow and big shoes to fill.
Here, on stage, Margo is played by Gillian Anderson, much more nuanced and not half as frightening. She’s ageing, but she’s still beautiful. She’s tough, but weak too – I doubt Miss Davis would ever have consented to being displayed on a big screen with her head over a toilet pan full of vomit.
Into the world of Margo, ageing actress and icon, comes Eve Harrington, who has been in the audience at every performance. A mouse who adores her idol, and soon makes herself indispensable.
Lily James plays her, and the opening scenes, introduced by Stanley Townsend’s Addison de Witt (he’s far more frightening that the urbane George Sanders was on film), show her in close-up, smiling, duplicitous.
The big screen shows what goes on off the stage and in front of the mirror. Now and then, it is a good device, but too often it wastes a cavernous stage where things could and should be happening.
Monica Dolan plays Karen Richards, the faithful friend, the writer’s wife, the enabler of both Margo and Eve’s excesses. She becomes the main narrator, confidante, gossip for the audience. It’s a remarkable performance full of subtle characterisation.
This is and should be Margo’s show, though. Gillian Anderson is marvellous, whether displaying her barbed comments or hidden neuroses, and any actress of a certain age who allows her face to be scrutinised so deeply on a video projection deserves admiration.
She is a bitch – but so too is Miss Harrington. She schemes and plays her friends, but she pays for her ambition in a development which looks shaky in these days of feminist liberation.
Margo, Eve, Phoebe. This is a woman’s play, even with faithful companion Birdie (Sheila Reid, quietly marvellous) on the periphery. Yes, there’s Addison, and Bill – boyfriend to Margo and director – and Lloyd – writer and husband to Karen. They are defined by their women. Max the producer is even driven to the bicarb by them.
Ivo van Hove has done more involving work, notably Hedda Gabler and Network at the National. Here he overuses the video work and sometimes loses sight of the small moments: when they are there, and they work, this touches greatness, but it isn’t quite enough.