Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Haunted by the past

The cast of ghosts in costumes

Secret society: Stephen Downing as Engstrand, Andy Bingham as Oswald and Olivia Rimes as Regina standing behid Louise Fulwell as Helena Alving and Chris Clarke as Pastor Manders


The Nonentities

Rose Theatre, Kidderminster


SO, we have an artist son who returns home dying from inherited syphilis, the disease that killed his philandering father, and who now wants to marry his half sister – Henrik Ibsen was not one for fun. His target was the hypocrisy of stifling 19th century morality.

That being said Stephen Downing manages to extract every ounce of humour in a wonderful portrayal of the scheming Jacob Engstrand – perhaps just as well with wife Susan Downng as director.

Engstrand is a Jacob-the-lad, a fine carpenter, when he is sober that is, with a roving eye for the main chance. He has saved a lot of the money he earned working on the Captain Alving Memorial Orphanage at Rosenvold, the Alving estate and wants to open a sailor’s rest, or as we might call it, a brothel, by the docks.

Louise Fulwell gives us a striking performance as the lady of the house, Mrs Helena Alving, widow of the good captain, but perhaps all is not as it seems.

Helena has kept two big secrets from her son, her maid and her spiritual crutch Pastor Manders, who takes pomposity and hypocrisy to new levels.

She had left her husband a year afterA picture of Oswald and Regina marriage and gone to the Pastor, a family friend who it is obvious she had feelings for, at least then she did, but he had persuaded her to return to her husband to protect his own reputation and because he told her duty as a wife was more important than anything else – the anything else being the secrets she had keep for more than 20 years.

Chris Clarke gives us a priggish, supercilious infuriating small town preacher – someone you would suspect believes battered wives had done something to deserve it, someone impossible to argue with as logic and common sense have no place in his thinking and someone so easy to dislike in a delightful performance.

Oswald and Regina who could have been lovers if not for the ghosts

He gives us such gems of liberal thought as "Only the rebellious expect happiness in their life" and "it is not for a woman to be her husband's judge." Fun guy.

There is much more to acting that remembering lines and not bumping into the furniture too often, that, like costumes, is just part of the trick, the rest is giving the characters life and making them into real people with words and actions which seem natural and this trio managed that beautifully well supported by Andy Bingham as Oswald and Olivia Rimes as Regina, daughter of Jacob.

Bingham gives us plenty of angst as the dying son Oswald. His return to the repressive atmosphere of Rosenvold is the catalyst for revolution when he stands up to the Pastor and challenges his views on morality. Whether it is to defend her son, or whether Oswald has just breached the floodgates we will never know, but his outburst has cleared the way for Helena’s revelations - the ghosts of the past that have haunted here almost from the day she was first married.

Olivia Rimes provides another view of the affair first as the subservient, deferential maid to Mrs Alving and then, when she discovers the truth, we see realA picture of Helena Alving and her son Oswald anger at what she sees as betrayal, the lies and deceit that has kept her, an equal, as a servant.

We learn the orphanage is a tribute to Helen’s husband in name only and has a much deeper purpose and when it burns down we discover the pastor’s morality does not extend as far his own reputation and he will happily fund a brothel to save his skin.

There are echoes today with corruption and buying favour and influence and, as a final poser, assisted suicide and mercy killings, the final issue raised by Ibsen in the closing moments of the play.  It is a question he never answers, just one he poses.

Mrs Alving and her son Oswald both carry the scars of her marriage to the dead Captain

The play was originally written in 1881, in Danish, while Ibsen was living in Rome and spending a summer in Sorrento and was published in Copenhagen and first performed in Norwegian in Chicago in 1882.

Ibsen is not the easiest to perform, it can easily become a depressing dirge making Norway appear the most miserable place on earth, sodden under constant rain and  populated by intense, humourless souls in constant torment.

Ghosts was an attack on the morality of its time and it is interesting how many echoes are still resonating today, helped by sensitive direction from Sue Downing who keeps up a good pace, managing to bring the play home in two hours including an interval.

She also allows the characters to speak their mind with a delivery much closer to Wilde than Ibsen, which, despite the play being 132 years old gives it a more contemporary feel.

The intimate studio setting puts us in the Alving living room and Keith Higgins and Mike Lawrence and their team have done a splendid job with the simple set, particularly the panelled wall as a backdrop and the potted plants, live not plastic, which punch well above their weight in making set look realistic, while Lynn Ravenhill has done an excellent job with an authentic looking wardrobe.

With performances like this it is easy to forget Ibsen is not a favourite of mine. To 12-04-14.

Roger Clarke

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