Beware a life in the theatre . . .

Adapted by Ivo van Hove from the 1950 Twentieth Century Fox film by Joseph L Mankiewicz starring Bette Davis, and the play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr. Hove also directs this version of the play which was filmed at the Noel Coward Theatre with set and lighting design from Jan Versweyveld, costume design by An D’Huys and music from double Mercury Prize-winner PJ Harvey, alongside Tom Gibbons’ sound design .

It is perhaps a little slow to take off at the beginning but is gripping and chilling with stupendous performances by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, The Fall, NT Live: A Streetcar Named Desire) and Lily James (Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) .

The play tells the story of leading theatre legend Margo Channing. ( Margo is a true star of the theatre. The spotlight is hers, always has been. Now , suddenly, there’s Eve , supposedly her biggest fan who has attended every performance of the current play she is in.  Young, beautiful Eve. Eve , ‘the girl next door ‘ who becomes the golden girl – at first Margo’s secretary , then her understudy , then … But we know all about Eve…don’t we…?!

Hove’s production has a sparse and clinical atmosphere, very contemporary . There is also the use of a video camera and projection which can be quite distracting and alienating but at other times the heightened use of close up works to great effect. This blurs the boundaries between ‘real life ‘ and life on stage/backstage, and the production also focuses on the pressures particularly on women with body image and the damage and demands imposed on celebrity. It is also about confronting ageism and death. There are spooky parallels when first Margot and then Eve stare into the same dressing room mirror and see themselves aged – both paw at their faces as if to deny it.                       

The play begins, as in the film, with the VIP theatre critic Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend) setting the scene and announcing Eve has won a major award for the role Margo was supposed to play Then the story is told in flashback, with tremendous Monica Dolan as Karen, Margot’s friend, acting as narrator .

As Eve,  Lily James gives an astonishing, chilling, confronting performance. At first she seems shy, sweet and naïve but we eventually learn of her ruthlessness, blackmail and manipulations behind the scenes . There is an extraordinary scene where she rants and raves, blackmails Karen and others and morphs into a shocking ,. demonic monster. There is an unexpected sardonic twist at the end where the cycle continues ….

As Margo Channing,.Gillian Anderson strips herself bare sacrificing everything for the role. Mostly she is elegant and sophisticated, inspired and inspiring, witty and charming, but other scenes reveal her vulnerability. Margot is facing ageism and is terrified of losing her established place as a leading diva to what turns out to be her younger rival Eve. Anderson particularly shines in two scenes – her argument with her long time partner, director Bill ( Julian Ovenden ) after Eve has triumphed as her understudy and taken over, and the poignant point where she mourns what she sacrificed for stardom. The many layers of Margo are also revealed as we see her make a very theatrical, embarrassing,  scene where she is drunk at Bill’s birthday party – later we see Margo drinking in the bath, and then staggering over to the toilet to throw up while the guests are still celebrating. .

Stanley Townsend is magnificent as the supremely self confident, ruthless ,devious De Witt,  charming on the surface, yet with hidden violence and coercion underneath,  blackmailing where necessary and delivering his demands with toxic vigour .

Sheila Reid is delightful as the witty assistant Birdie who observes and takes everything in.

This is an engrossing, compelling yet challenging night at the theatre.

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

Running time 150 minutes without an interval.

NT Live screenings of All About Eve screens at selected arthouse cinemas from 25 May 2019.