'Unlike anything I have seen on this stage': our review of Ghosts in Northampton

Penny Downie as Helen Alving and Pierro Niel-Mee as Osvald Alving. Picture: Sheila Burnett
Penny Downie as Helen Alving and Pierro Niel-Mee as Osvald Alving. Picture: Sheila Burnett

Lily Canter reviews Ghosts at the Royal & Derngate

Crucified by critics as "wretched", "deplorable" and "loathsome" following its first London performance in 1891, Ghosts remains an astonishing centrepiece in the Ibsen catalogue, gleefully holding up an unwelcome mirror to the hypocrisy of society.

Currently running at Royal & Derngate following a lengthy adaption by Mike Poulton, this portrait of an unravelling, wealthy family is an extraordinary piece of theatre unlike anything I have seen on this Northampton stage.

Suffocated by the endless Norwegian rain, a web of paternal lies and the exhausting pressure to keep up appearances, widow Helen Alving struggles to keep the truth at bay on the eve of her husband's ten-year memorial.

Close to the Alving manor house a new orphanage is being prepared for its grand opening in memory of Captain Alving. The local pastor attends the manor to prepare for the eulogy whilst Osvald, the Alving's troubled, artistic son returns from Paris for the celebrations.

What takes place is a masterly integration of morality, truth and hypocrisy which gets to the dark heart of Victorian society, through the means of a family drama.

This is a world on the cusp of change, where the young begin to question the sanctity of marriage above all else, and women start to take control against abusive and manipulative men.

At the centre of the turmoil, diametrically opposing the progressive Helen, is Pastor Manders, desperately clinging onto the past, revelling in bigotry and contradiction.

Viewed by audiences today as a flawed, satirical character, 19th-century audiences most likely aligned themselves with his church establishment world view and mistook Helen as representing the vulgarity of Victorian values.

That it has taken 130 years for Ibsen's play to be interpreted as he intended demonstrates just how ahead of his time the playwright was. And although audiences today may not recognise the constraints of sex and class so heavily felt in the 19th century, the universal theme of a society gripped in hypocrisy still comes back to haunt us all.

The powerful source material is given further gravitas by the world-class acting on display where every breath, stutter and gesture is performed to perfection, creating a remarkable sense of naturalism.

Lead Pennie Downie is a force to be reckoned with as she adeptly masters both light relief and gripping tension, whilst it is impossible to take your eyes off James Wilby as the spitting, self-righteous pastor.

Simple but effective staging by designer Mike Britton and a director (Lucy Bailey) who puts acting above all else is the perfect combination in this outstanding production.

If you see one thing at the theatre this year, make sure it is Ghosts.

* The production runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday May 11. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk to book.