IN BRIEF Ibsen’s modernised classic feels overlong and insubstantial but is saved by three performances

Describing the episodic global “making your fortune” journeys of Peter Gynt, the “serial fantasist with ADD”, we follow him from Scotland to Florida to the African deserts to a sea journey, and more, as he makes money, loses it and eventually comes to the realisation that his track was the wrong one.

Peppered with Trumpian and other contemporary references which although having an impact felt to me a bit straightforward, however there are a number of details to enjoy along PETER GYNT’s running time. The interesting thing is that this long, big show is at its most effective when it is still, small and quiet.

Through all the costume changes, locations, big cast, effects (and to me, frankly unnecessary musical interludes (with apologies to MD supreme Kevin Amos whose band played so well)), this show shines with two simple scenes. First, when cradling his frail mother (Ann Louise Ross) in his arms on her deathbed, Gynt surprises with the loving warmth and comfort that his (previously worthless) storytelling could bring to her last minutes on earth. Beautifully still, the two actors create genuine compassion in a highly moving end to the first part of the show which held the Olivier’s audience in rapt attention. The other scene is towards the end of the show, as Gynt faces the Button Moulder (the recycler of souls), who tells him of the reckoning to come and holds up the mirror to his folly. Their quiet, static negotiation is truly compelling and blessed with skill of Oliver Ford Davies, a masterful piece of acting. Aside from the brilliance of Ford Davies, Ross as Gynt’s mother wins us early with her unrestrained railing against her son, a waster like his father, yet aching with regret when blaming herself for his feckless dreaming, cementing the audience’s compassion.

Central is Gynt himself, with a strong, detailed and accomplished performance by James McArdle. Rarely offstage for the whole three hours, from his opening monologue he creates a frustrating man with many human faults. His reckoning and eventual understanding is touching, slow and deliberate, and highly effective. A great performance which got me through this overlong show.

PETER GYNT plays the Edinburgh International Festival from August 1-10, tickets here. It then returns to the National to play in repertoire until October 8th. Information and tickets here

Review: WIFE

IN BRIEF Four part time-travelling play explores the prices paid for marriage by those termed “wives” in an earnest but uneven script, well-acted and directed.

WIFE is four one-act plays linked by related, conflicted characters, spanning 90 years of time- 1959, 1988, 2019 and 2049. It’s a very uneven, sprawling but earnest show which aspires to look at the state of marriage across the years, through interactions with Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, using the play and theatre as reference points along the way. Anyone who does not know Ibsen’s play will still find this show accessible.

In 1959, teacher Daisy loves actor Suzannah but is married to accountant Robert, who sexually assaults her. The resulting (unwanted) child -Ivar- in 1988 pressures Eric, a young carer (for the previously mentioned Daisy) to come out too quickly and in doing so causes their relationship to split. In 2019, Eric’s daughter Clare tracks down the previously mentioned Ivar to ask about her father who has been killed. Ivar is now married to Cas, a self-obsessed performance artist wasting Ivar’s money on vanity projects. In 2049, Clare’s daughter Daisy is in love with the theatre and actor Suzannah, who tries to help her unravel the mystery of the tambourine, a family heirloom, and inscriptions therein. Cyclically, and quite satisfyingly, we return to 1959 to the first meeting between Daisy and Suzannah, where all the possibilities began.

Samuel Adamson has produced an intense play, with only a few laughs amongst the angst, but it held the audience from start to finish. Adamson’s thrust seems to be that the state of marriage has never provided equality and liberty; in the first part it is seen as a traditional trap for women, the second is as an unfocused aspiration to “have what heterosexuals have”, the third is lazy and an anachronistic accessory, and the fourth seems unnecessary. The play says much more about homosexual relationships than heterosexual ones and as such is a more useful debater about how society’s outsiders seem to have become politically neutered by being brought inside the law. However, this is all rather academic and somewhat dry. The section in the future was less compelling to me and perhaps only there to frame the circularity device, it did not interest me as much as the other parts.

Indhu Rubasingham skilfully directs with a humanity and care for the characters, while also providing us with a very funny and much welcome first act curtain which completely drags us into the present. A cast of six do a good job with the material they are given.

As a wider exploration of marriage the play is lacking, but as an examination of same-sex relationships and how they relate to the social and legal strictures of the day it fares better. From Daisy’s 1959 “arranged marriage” to Ivar’s 1988 struggle for self-expression, to Ivar’s 2019 realisation that the grass isn’t always greener (“We got what we wanted… and we lost”) to young Daisy’s open relationship of 2049, it’s an interesting discussion. For me, the play works best when in the present, highlighting self-obsession and expression which appear to have engendered complacency amongst those who have not had to fight for the rights they have been gifted with. As a discussion, this show has many loose ends and unexplored avenues which made it rather frustrating for this viewer.

The “wife” term will mean different things to different people in different times. As it is used here, it’s first as a prisoner, then a camp joke, then a self-conscious archaism, then- who knows?  Rather than accepting society’s definitions, how much better to first know, and be ourselves – to find our own truth, not a label.

I hope that WIFE finds its audience.

WIFE runs at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn, until 6 July. Information and tickets here