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Ghosts, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, review: Ibsen’s vice-like drama doesn’t quite grip as it should

Claire Allfree
Penny Downie as Helen Alving and James Wilby as Pastor Manders in Ghosts - SheilsaBurnett

There’s an awful lot of rain in Ibsen’s Ghosts. The characters refer to it constantly. In Lucy Bailey’s new production, the very house that Mrs Alving has occupied for 20 years on a remote Norwegian island seems practically made of the stuff. Some of the walls in Mike Britton’s elegant set are translucent, others a shimmering, aqueous green, as though this seemingly impeccable model of domestic propriety is trapped under the sea, slowly rotting away.

Bailey’s revival uses a brisk, if sometimes blunt new adaptation from Mike Poulton, who usually works on a larger scale – his other adaptations include Imperium and Wolf Hall. And, in fact, there is an initially pleasingly matter-of-factness about the approach of both to this gloom-infested work, with its exacting concerns with inherited guilt and the sins of the fathers, and its evident debt to Greek tragedy.

The tone is prosaic, down-to-earth. Penny Downie’s Mrs Alving is practical, capable and a bit flirty, prone to chuckles and to crisp dismissals of Pastor Manders’s more obviously absurd, vainglorious gestures.

Quietly rebellious, she is nervous but also bold. When the fire burns down the orphanage she has built, ostensibly to honour her detested dead husband, she is exhilarated, free. You even imagine, at times, she might be rather fun on a night out – not that nights out are an option in 19th-century Norway, what with all that rain and raging Christian sermonising.

For while the play’s references to incest and to the fatal venereal disease inherited by Mrs Alving’s son Osvald from his dissolute father no longer shock the way they once did, Ghosts remains a vice-like study of the imprisoning power of moral decay and the illusions we construct for ourselves in order to go on living. The ghosts Mrs Alving often feels around her – tangentially referenced by barely visible shadows of domestic servants passing through the back dining room – are not those of her late husband’s carnal transgressions but manifestations of her own failures over the years to confront certain truths.

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

Bailey’s production looks beautiful but never quite reaches full strength. Poulton’s jokier moments add a few rare laughs but weaken the play’s inexorable grip. James Wilby’s Manders is enjoyably buffoonish, but you never feel behind him the bone-chilling force of puritanical fundamentalism that has trapped Mrs Alving in a joyless marriage and in doing so, condemned her son.

Pierro Niel-Mee as Osvald gives a marvellous study in robbed youthful innocence, though. Along with Eleanor McLoughlin’s proud, and finally heartbreaking Regina, Osvald’s illegitimate sister, both convey an indelible sense of two hopeful young people betrayed beyond salvation by an older generation.

Until May 11. Tickets: 01604 624811; royalandderngate.co.uk