Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Theatre review: All About Eve

Ivo van Hove's love of translating cinema to the stage (while keeping a few cinematic tricks in his back pocket) brings him to the 1950 classic All About Eve, a fairly obvious fit for a return to the theatre as it's all about backstage intrigue and ambition, and based on a stage play in the first place. The production was originally set to star Cate Blanchett in the role made famous by Bette Davis, but she ditched it to star in a play that you can only see if you win a load of old ballots. For me it worked out, as I prefer her replacement Gillian Anderson, a woman who can spell both "Gillian" and "Anderson," as opposed to one who can spell neither "Kate" nor "Blanket." Anderson is Broadway grand dame Margo Channing, a star currently wowing the crowds in a role specially written for her by popular playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone,) who's lining up a role in his next play for her as well.

Lloyd's wife Karen (Monica Dolan) takes pity on a fan who stalks the stage door at every performance, and decides to invite Eve Harrington (Lily James) backstage to meet her idol.

Eve's charm and sob story endear her to everyone, and despite her initial reservations and those of her friend Birdie (Sheila Reid) Margo employs Eve as her assistant. She soon regrets this when she starts to suspect Eve of trying to steal her boyfriend, the play's director Bill (Julian Ovenden,) but nobody notices until it's too late that Eve's actually trying to steal a lot more from her. Manipulating her way into her friends' affections, she first gets herself hired as Margo's understudy before trying to grab the lead in Lloyd's next play. As the story is told in flashback from an award ceremony where Eve's been lauded as Broadway's newest and biggest star, we already know her plan's going to pay off.

van Hove's signature style is apparent from the opening, as gossip columnist Addison (Stanley Townsend) has barely been on stage for a few moments before wandering off with a camera following him backstage on a tour around the characters as they wait to make their entrance. I liked the set's twist on Jan Versweyveld's familiar concept of a stark room with its workings exposed: Here a plain, purgatorial red room has its walls slowly rise up to show the busy, bare stage behind it. And there's a similar theme to how van Hove's production works, showing up the chaotic truth behind the image. As guests try to make the best of a gloomy party in Bill's honour, the cameras follow a drunk Margo falling into the bathtub and throwing up.

Anderson really does deliver a great performance that contains hints of Bette Davis' twisted lip of disdain but also has a vulnerability that's her own; she's not afraid to make fun of Margo as her (justifiable) paranoia takes hold. Age is a recurring theme in the play but Anderson's Margo isn't concerned by it until Eve weaponises it against her (and while there's much discussion of older actresses playing roles much younger than them, notable by its absence is any comment on older male actors doing the same.) James' Eve is openly sociopathic (the woman behind me muttered "she's scary!" at one filmed close-up; she also had a couple of noises to make when Stone took his shirt off.) The other standout is Dolan, whose de facto narrator Karen is the person whose kindness Eve most regularly manipulates, and who charts the increasing hysteria as it becomes apparent no good deed will go unpunished.

Also notable is Townsend's Addison, a much less queeny character than the film's low-key villain, he's a physically imposing and single-minded figure who sets up the story's twist as Eve's victory comes with a sting in its tail; and what looked like Margo ending up on the scrapheap starts to look more like her getting what she actually wanted.

An D'Huys' costumes are modern, contrasting with the fact that van Hove keeps Joseph L Mankiewicz' script largely intact, 1940s references and all; initially there's a couple of moments when this jars but if Shakespeare's texts can be put into a modern setting with no changes so can this, and it ultimately adds to a timeless feel. I'd still rather van Hove wasn't quite so enamoured as he currently seems to be with adapting films for the stage, if nothing else because those seem to be the productions most likely to be duds. This isn't one though; it's not his most revolutionary reinvention but it draws you in for a couple of hours.

All About Eve by Joseph L Mankiewicz, based on The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, is booking until the 10th of May at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

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