Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Bono without the jokes

I rarely visit the Jermyn Street theatre because it’s too nice.

I rarely visit the Jermyn Street theatre because it’s too nice.

I rarely visit the Jermyn Street theatre because it’s too nice. A small, raffish space just off Piccadilly, it has plush crimson seats and good-natured staff who never to fail to press a welcoming glass of claret into my hand. To criticise one of their shows would feel like abuse of hospitality. So in discussing Anthony Biggs’s production of Ibsen’s late play Little Eyolf let’s focus on the positive. The costumes are nice. Now we can move on. Though written when he was in his mid-60s, the play finds Ibsen in suicidal teenager mode and taking a perverse delight in cramming every scene with wrist-slashing reversals of fortune. Little Eyolf is a charming, chirpy nine-year-old cripple who stumps about bravely on his velvet–trimmed crutches showing off his brand-new soldier’s costume to everyone he meets. He lives by a fjord, with dangerous hidden currents, and he can’t swim. Right-oh. Can you guess what happens next? Correct. That’s the end of Act One.

The rest of the play follows his parents’ attempts to cope with the aftermath of their son’s unsuccessful bid to make the Norwegian paralympic swimming team. Eyolf’s dad, Alfred, is a turgid mystic who likes scrambling up mountainsides and experiencing philosophical epiphanies while listening to the trickle of glaciers. He’s also prone to bursts of humanitarian sermonising. Think Bono without the jokes. You’d put him in charge of malaria but you wouldn’t ask him round for beer and a game of darts. His tremulous priggishness is caught nicely by Jonathan Cullen. His wife, Rita, is even harder to warm to. A morbid, scatter-brained hysteric, she’s haunted by sexual guilt because eight years before the newborn Eyolf was irreparably injured in a fall from the dining-room table while she and Alfred were upstairs trying to knock out a sibling for him.

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