I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be such a bumper of an evening. With echoes of Bette Davis in my head, I sat my bum in a Noel Coward Theatre seat to watch Lily James and Gillian Anderson, and one of my favourite actors, Sondheim master Julian Ovenden, re-craft a cinematic masterpiece, All About Eve. With set design by Jan Versweyveld (of Network fame) and Dutch super-director Ivo van Hove, you had best fasten your seatbelts. All About Eve is no longer all about Bette Davis.
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” (Margo Channing)
Not familiar with the original 1950s film? You’re missing out. It’s a classic which earned 14 Academy Award nominations and collected a whopping six, including Best Picture. It’s the only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations, although a very young Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles, was unsurprisingly, not one of them.
Gillian Anderson takes on the arduous task of bringing Bette Davis’s iconic role onto the London stage, and she does it with aplomb. She plays the fading Broadway star, Margo Channing, who is in her 40s and clinging on to youth with a fragile thread. In stalks the young and beautiful Eve Harrington, Margo’s obsessive fan. She’s been to every performance of Margo’s latest play, and she worships the ground the star walks on. Margo is flattered by the young girl’s attention, unaware that Eve is a ruthless actress who will stop at nothing to get into Margo’s shoes, her clothes and into her bed – literally.
Of course, Lily James is practically perfect in every way. James plays the calculating, fiendishly villainous Eve with charm and youthful energy. She could take on Lady Macbeth any day of the week. The ever-handsome Ovenden plays Margo’s boyfriend, Bill Sampson, who is eight years her junior, swaggering on-and-off stage and immune to the adulation he is getting from Margo’s nemesis. He has eyes only for Margo, who in turn thinks he has eyes only for Eve.
“So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.” (Margo Channing)
Other cast members include Monica Dolan who plays Margo’s best friend, Karen Richards, and who is married to the successful playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone). Theatre critic Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend) is the male version of the stop-at-nothing-to-get-the-scoop Hedda Hopper, although at least he has charm.
It’s a funny thing when one of the greatest movies about theatre gets made into a play where the silver screen muscles in as a live peepshow. Jan Versweyveld reminds us of the cinematic value of All About Eve through the very clever use of two cameras capturing the action on stage and backstage, and splattering the range of human emotion on a large scale screen above (and even on screens throughout the auditorium). From Margo’s devastation as she watches her face time-lapse to old age, to the glint and grit of Eve’s eyes as she realises she’s about to take the prize, the camera becomes a powerful zoom-in tool that creates moments of intimacy with the stars. The mirror becomes the space where we glean into Margo and Eve DNA – warts and all.
This is where I give a hand to my incredibly gifted friend, Paul Atkinson, who worked alongside Jan Versweyveld to create the on-stage on-screen marriage which also worked so brilliantly in National Theatre’s Network.
Anderson has successfully transitioned from the TV role she is most known for – Scully in The X Files. It might be All About Eve, but this corker is really all about Gillian Anderson. Margo is gritty, brusque and paranoid, but every female in the audience will relate to this woman whose youth continues to elude her. Anderson creates a sympathetic and touching Margo, and one for whom your heart breaks a little.
You will want to hold on tight, ‘cos this one is going to grab you by the throat. All About Eve is hair-raisingly good theatre.
All About Eve is showing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May. With only a handful of seats available for some performances, your best bet is to grab a couple of cinema seats. It’s showing in cinemas nationwide on 11 April.
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