Reviews West End & Central Published 27 November 2015

Little Eyolf

Almeida Theatre ⋄ 19th November 2015 - 9th January 2016

Self-obsession.

Neil Dowden
Credit: Tristram Kenton

Credit: Tristram Kenton

Although it’s one of Ibsen’s shorter plays anyway, the Almeida’s new production of Little Eyolf is certainly ‘little’. Running at 80 minutes without an interval, Richard Eyre’s adaptation cuts to the chase. Following on from his powerful, award-winning revivals at the Almeida of Hedda Gabler in 2005 (starring Eve Best and Benedict Cumberbatch) and of Ghosts in 2013 (with Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden), both of which transferred to the West End, this stripped-down Little Eyolf attempts to ramp up the tension but fails to put much flesh on the bones of a less substantial play.

Not often performed, Ibsen’s late work is a claustrophobic, subdued piece of Nordic noir without the thrills. On an isolated part of the Norwegian coast the Allmers family is in crisis. After a break hiking in the mountains to reassess his life, Alfred has decided to give up writing his epic tome ‘The Responsibility of Being Human’ (which ironically has made him more selfish) to devote his time to being with his nine-year-old disabled son Eyolf. But his wife Rita feels neglected and fears that he has lost all desire for her, as she wishes Eyolf had ‘never been born’. Alfred seems to be closer emotionally to his half-sister Asta, who is being reluctantly courted by the road-builder Bjarne. And when a pedlar-woman calls to ask if there are any rats or ‘gnawing things’ to be got rid of, events take an even more sombre turn.

Little Eyolf is another Ibsen play that portrays a marriage gone horribly wrong (reflecting his own experience one assumes), perhaps in a line leading to plays like Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it is a much cooler affair without the same burning intensity. It seems that guilt has destroyed Alfred’s passion (Eyolf crippled his leg after falling off a table as a baby while his parents were making love), leaving Rita distraught as her maternal feelings come second to her love for her husband.

Eyre’s production tries to emphasise the modernity of Little Eyolf’s depiction of female sexuality (Rita actually exposes her breasts to Alfred at one point, not something you expect to see in an Ibsen play), and there is even a hint of ménage à trois, but though no doubt radical for its time it’s difficult to care about these self-obsessed people. Tim Hatley’s clean-cut, pinewood design suggests a Scandinavian minimalism, while Jon Driscoll’s video projections of unsettled mountain skies mirror the turbulent moods of the protagonists.

In an impressively bold performance Lydia Leonard gives Rita a sharply sardonic, sexually frustrated character, contrasting with Jolyon Coy’s earnestly detached, philosophical Alfred. Eve Ponsonby plays the emotionally torn Asta and Sam Hazeldine the forward-looking civil engineer Bjarne. And Eileen Walsh is the creepily intrusive, pied-piper ‘rat-woman’ scaring but fascinating Tom Hibberd’s innocent Eyolf, who will never be able to fulfil his dreams of an active life.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Little Eyolf Show Info


Directed by Richard Eyre

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Cast includes Jolyon Coy, Sam Hazeldine, Lydia Leonard, Eve Ponsonby, Eileen Walsh, Adam Greaves-Neal, Tom Hibberd, Billy Marlow

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