LONDON — Following Network, Ivo van Hove’s disappointing star vehicle now packing them in on Broadway, the writer/director is back in peak form with his adaptation of All About Eve in the West End.
A theater story set in the realm of backstage gossipmongers, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film is an ideal fit for van Hove’s cold Kubrickian style.
Gillian Anderson steps into the Bette Davis role of Margot Channing, the middle-aged stage star (40 in the film, 50 here) whose stage-struck assistant Eve Harrington (Lily James) slowly steals her career. Anderson plays Margot’s paranoid temper tantrums as carefully orchestrated soliloquies, as opposed to Davis, whose Martini-dry tongue-lashings were extensions of her personality.
When Anderson intones Mankiewicz’s iconic line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” it’s because she’s thought it through and decided to make it one. This Eve is more outright battle than tiptoeing relationship drama. The fury recalls van Hove’s 2016 Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge, where one could all but feel the characters’ urge to rend each other’s flesh.
All About Eve’s unexpected delight is Stanley Townsend as the monstrous but composed “critic and commentator” Addison DeWitt, played by the terrifying George Sanders in the film. Townsend leans more to booming where Sanders went clipped, and in one party sequence (set, oddly, to contemporary club music), he holds court with the insistence of a ringmaster. Swooping through the hip crowd, he bellows Mankiewicz’s proclamation that theater folk are “a breed apart from the rest of humanity… The original displaced personalities.”
In the film, these lines were delivered with Sanders’ trademark air of disaffection. Townsend’s DeWitt really seems to mean them, which foreshadows the cozy superiority DeWitt uses to justify his cruelty as he takes up Eve as his personal protégé and, eventually, as his property.
Eve’s bounty of winning performances is in contrast to Network, which is dominated by Bryan Cranston’s messianic Howard Beale. While Network is a hit, its live video undermines the source material, the 1976 movie, by giving the audience too many places to look. And its pedantic treatment of the prophetic satire about corporate media renders the play uninteresting.
I saw All About Eve a few weeks after its opening and detected more life than did some other reviewers. Perhaps Anderson and James relaxed into the odd environment of Jan Versweyveld’s stark set, interesting primarily for how it leaves most of the backstage area exposed. Where the actors are coming from is one of the production’s many mysteries. Another is watching Anderson’s face turn to a grizzled death’s head in her makeup mirror as she bemoans her age.
At the end of All About Eve, the film and play, Margot retires from the theater to a quiet life with her new husband. Hammering this home, Anderson stands at the back of the stage as Lily James plays her final scene. Van Hove, emphasizing different aspects of the story, drives home that the only way Margot can win – or even come out unscathed – is to remove herself from the cult of celebrity permanently. In All About Eve the film, it’s the flailing of up-and-comers that pushes established stars out to pasture. In the play, it’s merely the passage of time, and thus inevitable.
At the Noel Coward Theatre through May 11. Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions and Fox Stage Productions. Tickets here.