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Review: Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic - tense, gripping, joyous but still overly long

It is at times gripping, tense, funny and joyful but equally there were times when I was impatient for it to move on

There was a moment after the first of two intervals during Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic when I felt myself sit up straight. Up until that point the play had been entertaining but suddenly it got interesting as well.

Now there is nothing wrong with entertaining - it can be an overlooked element of theatre - but when you've got a play with a running time of 3 hours 45  minutes (when I saw it, it's since had 15 minutes trimmed away) entertaining isn't quite enough.

fanny and alexander old vic jay brooks
Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic. Photo: Jay Brooks

The Ingmar Bergman film, from which this has been adapted by Stephen Beresford, was also a bit of a beast in its running time - just over three hours - but I've not seen it so the story was a surprise.

Fanny and Alexander are young siblings growing up in a bohemian apartment block. Their parents Emilie (Catherine Walker) and Oscar (Sargon Yelda) are actors who run a successful theatre.

Their grandmother (Penelope Wilton) is an actress, their uncle Gustav (Jonathan Slinger) is a womaniser and uncle Carl (Thomas Arnold) has married a German woman no one seems to like.

The children take parts in their parents plays and it is a sociable, creative and free upbringing among their extended family and friends.

It is a childhood full of stories, play and fun, despite the various tensions between the adults.

Oscar has a vivid if sometimes macabre imagination - he 'sees' and talks to the grim reaper. Is he just a worrier or is there something more fatalistic about his visions of death?

The latter would appear true when his father Oscar dies suddenly and, still grieving, Emilie, marries Edvard (Kevin Doyle) a widowed bishop.

This was the moment that I sat up. The hour or so up to the first interval is like watching a colourful, animated toy box with its set of ornate furniture and rich, red theatrical drapes.

When Emilie moves with the children into Edvard's home, the set is stark, the box has been stripped bare and painted white. It reflects the austere, strict, authoritarian style of parenting that Edvard employs.

Fanny and Alexander's bohemian upbringing doesn't sit well with Edvard's structure, discipline and desire to dominate, neither does Alexander's vivid and macabre imagination.

From here the play takes a more interesting, darker turn with a plot line that is worthy of Dickens and the great Victorian Gothic novels.

It renders the first part of the play a colourful, yet overly long set up for the rest of the story. There is an almost unwieldy list of extended characters to introduce with their own mini sub plots as well as the children's life style to establish to contrast with the regime under their step father.

But is all of that really necessary? There is a lot to mull over in the central storyline, themes of imagination vs reality, fate vs free will, love, loyalty and family together with social commentary about the position of women in society.

By keeping so many story threads it makes it lumpy - when it flies it really does fly but equally it flags in places.

There is a whole church scene which seems constructed to show one look, on one characters face. And regular segments where cast members describe what the characters are eating.

Fans and purists cover your eyes but these elements feel like an indulgence that could easily be cut without danger to the the central plot, tone or atmosphere. Given the running time has been subsequently been trimmed, perhaps they have and I'm sure the play is much better for being a bit shorter.

Don't get me wrong there is much that I really enjoyed about Fanny and Alexander, it is at times gripping, tense, funny and joyful - but equally there were times when I was impatient for it to move on.

Is it time for theatres to perhaps do a weekend 'director's cut' of plays for those who want to indulge?

I'm giving Fanny & Alexander four stars and it is as the Old Vic until April 15.