Theatre: Soul-searching almost too terrible to bear

Eileen Walsh as a rat-catcher in Little Eyolf

Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf has never been popular and has remained the least performed of his major works. It had its English premiere in 1896 when even William Archer, Ibsen’s champion, translator and director, thought “the soul-searching might be too terrible for human endurance in the theatre”.

Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy), who is suffering from writer’s block, intends to give up writing to devote himself entirely to his nine-year-old crippled son, Eyolf, and seek his fulfilment there. His wife, Rita (Lydia Leonard), makes it clear that she is not going to go on sharing him with their son. Allmers has always loved his sister (Eve Ponsonby) far more than he loves his wife.

When Eyolf drowns, the marriage is rocked even more. But the truth is that they never loved him; and now that he is dead, all they have left is guilt and remorse. Can they make the marriage work? The tension is maintained in Richard Eyre’s well-acted production at Almeida Theatre.

When Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House walked out on her husband and two children in 1879, the sound of the door slamming behind her reverberated throughout Europe. People were deeply shocked. More than a century later the taboo remains. Mothers who abandon their children get a far worse press than men who abandon theirs.

Deborah Bruce’s The Distance was so popular at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, last year that it has been brought back for another run. Motherhood is difficult; and for some mothers too difficult. Lots of women are going to identify with the heroine, who is convinced that her husband, whom the children adore, will do a far better job at bringing them up than she ever will. Her female friends rally round to give her support and advice. But it is not the advice she wants to hear: they fail to listen to what she is saying. The first act, in which everybody is talking at the same time, is particularly well stage-managed and as exhausting to listen to as it must be to act.

Charlotte Gwinner’s revival has a good cast. Michelle Duncan is the distressed mother. Charlotte Lucas is the well-meaning godmother, a control freak who drives everybody up the wall. Charlotte Emmerson is another well-meaning friend.

But with three children by three different husbands, and always in a flap, she is hardly the friend you would turn to for advice in a crisis. Joshua Sinclair-Evans, making his stage debut, shows considerable promise.

Leopold Lewis’s The Bells, which opened at the Lyceum on November 25, 1871 and ran for 151 performances, was a major turning point in Henry Irving’s career, a sensational triumph, bringing him lasting fame. All my theatre-going life I have longed to see it performed but feared it would only be revived to be laughed at. Audiences automatically presume melodrama is not to be taken seriously and that they are meant to laugh, boo the villain and cheer the heroine.

Andrew Shepherd as the hallucinating murderer proves conclusively that The Bells can be acted without any laughter, and that it deserves the full theatrical and financial resources the National Theatre and the RSC could bring to it.