One of the most highly anticipated theatre productions of the year, All About Eve has a lot to live up to. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s original 1950 film was nominated for a record-breaking 14 Oscars, including Best Actress for the iconic Bette Davies, and so, with a star cast featuring Gillian Anderson and Lily James as well as direction from Ivo van Hove, expectations are high.
All About Eve is a timely tale of celebrity, obsession and jealousy. Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson) is a theatre star and acting legend. One night her friend Karen (Monica Dolan) introduces Margo to Eve Harrington (Lily James), her number one fan, who lurks by the stage door night after night. But as Margo is encouraged to invite Eve into her life, little does she know that the young woman will do anything to take her place at the top.
Ivo van Hove is theatre’s answer to marmite, and despite the somewhat questionable Obsession, he hit the jackpot with the award-winning A View From the Bridge and most recently Network, which relied heavily on the use of video screens. Thankfully this time there’s no car oil in sight, but he once again combines film and theatre with the use of screens and cameras to bring the audience closer to some of the backstage action. While the idea may be a good one, the reality – some scenes taking place in rooms hidden from view rather than on the sprawling stage – results in a disconnect. At times the concept feels a little overused and detracts from the action on stage, particularly during a party scene where most cast members are randomly packed into a small kitchen for the most part rather than out in the open. At other times it works well – there’s a particularly effective moment where Margo is shown ageing rapidly, a reminder that this worry is never far from her mind. The play is scored by PJ Harvey and while at times the background music is an unwelcome distraction rather than letting the action speak for itself, her two beautiful songs for Margo and Eve add a touch of devastation to the piece.
The script remains loyal to the film, and like the original what really saves this production is the acting. It’s no mean feat following in the footsteps of Bette Davies, but Gillian Anderson meets the challenge head on, bringing a more vulnerable, melancholy side to Margo. Anderson last tread the boards in A Streetcar Named Desire, and while this performance doesn’t quite match Blanche, it does prove why she’s a worthy contender for any acting award. It’s her conversation with Karen by the roadside, simple and understated, which is one of the highlights of the play and proves that while theatrical gimmicks are clever to watch, it’s the stripped back moments where the actors are allowed to simply act that really work.
Anderson’s performance is evenly matched by that of Lily James as Eve, constantly lurking in the wings, studying Margo and ready to pounce when the time is right. She comes into her own during the latter part of the play, and it’s particularly refreshing to see a darker, more cunning side to James’ repertoire as her character develops. But the standout performance goes to Monica Dolan as both the narrator and Karen, and she steals almost every scene she’s in with seemingly little effort as the woman who unwittingly – at least at first – sets in motion the dramatic turn of events. The principle men impress too, namely Julian Ovenden as Margo’s lover Bill, and Stanley Townsend’s commanding, menacing performance as theatre critic Addison DeWitt, it really is All About the Women.
With a relevant story given today’s obsession with celebrity and ageism against women in the acting industry, not to mention a standout cast, All About Eve has the potential to be brilliant, but at times it’s hard to fully engage. That being said, there are moments of greatness in amongst the gimmicks and the play is worth a watch purely for the masterclass in acting.
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld
This review was originally written for Love London Love Culture. To read the original, click here.