As a teenage shut-in, growing up in Sydney in the 1990s was fantastic, because we got cable TV. Suddenly, from 5 meagre, free-to-air stations, there were hundreds and it took at least a couple of months to realise that there was still almost nothing worth watching.
But there was one stand-out channel for a budding time waster and cinephile: TCM – Turner Classic Movies.
Sure, it may have been conceived as little more than a dumping ground for IP that was otherwise gathering dust in the Turner Corporation Archives, but there were the occasional gems, and once a week an Australian star would introduce their favourite, old-timey movie.
I remember this particularly clearly, because one Thursday night, Magda Szubanski introduced All About Eve, and this young, closeted boy’s life changed.
Margo Channing. Eve Harrington. Addison DeWitt. I’d heard of Bette Davis, but never watched one of her films. I’d even heard of Joseph Mankiewicz (what 14 year old hasn’t…?), but nothing could prepare me for this sparkling jewel of film.
So imagine my excitement when a stage adaptation was announced. And starring Gillian Anderson as Margo Channing! Sure, when I found out that the original casting had been for Cate Blanchett to fill the role, it’s hard not to really really want to see that version of the play, but only a fool would look a gift Gillian in the mouth.
Now, imagine my frustration upon realising that the tickets I was so proud to have purchased with almost 6 months forethought was bang in the middle of Milan Design Week.
That’s what I get for planning.
However, rather than returning the tickets, I realised that the gift of Margo Channing had to be passed on. Not only was I lucky enough to find a friend who’d never even heard of the film, but she was eager to share her own discoveries…
As I am meant to be reviewing All About Eve and not simply singing the praises of its leading lady, I will get this out of the way nice and early: Gillian Anderson is a goddess. Incredible. Her performance of Margo Channing is powerful and engaging and she looks bloody gorgeous throughout.
Anderson is, for me, far-and-away the best aspect of Ivo van Hoe’s adaptation. The character of Margo is strong, witty, and glamorous; she is a star, and Anderson shines brilliantly.
The set and staging too are beautiful. They’ve ignited in me a desire to fill my own home with lavish deep red velvet and banquette seating that I never knew I had. Steady-cams are used to live stream action from around the set, projecting it above the stage, allowing glimpses of private moments and giving a modern reminder of invasive, celebrity-spotting, anti-privacy technology. It does add a cinematic quality to the performance that I really enjoyed.
And there’s music too, scored by the ever-cool PJ Harvey and it is a corker! Atmospheric, modern and sexy. I wasn’t aware Harvey was behind it ’til we were trotting to the tube and I remarked to my companion that the music was one of my highlights of the production.
However, as an adaptation, on the whole, there were aspects of the production that I felt let it down…
I am embarrassed to say that I had not seen the original film until I heard I would be seeing it on stage. But, wanting to know what this was all about, I hunted it down. I’d been promised a lot [Editor’s note: and by a not entirely reputable source…] – would it disappoint?
Good lord, does it not!
The dialogue and performances of that original film really stuck with me and I was excited to see an adaptation of it, but the problem then became that this isn’t really an adaptation at all. It’s an imitation.
For the most part the production sticks extremely close to the film in terms of dialogue and characterisation. I found myself constantly comparing and pre-empting the performances rather than enjoying them. Lily James’s ‘Eve’ suffers the worst of this for me: she plays Eve as a sickly sweet, sometimes hysterical girl who lacks the quiet cunning of Anne Baxter’s original. ‘Film Eve’ connives for her success and, when she gets it, realises it may not be what she’d bargained for. ‘Stage Eve’ was mildly irritating rather than interesting from the get-go, and unlike her film counterpart, she never really changed or evolved from there.
So in summary, the production looks and sounds great. It’s worth seeing for Gillian Anderson’s performance alone. If you’ve never seen All About Eve then you should do so, immediately… but really, in the end, do yourself a favour and see the film, because Harvey and Anderson aside, it is the original and, by far, the best.
Well, that’s disappointing. A script as great as Mankiewicz’s original in a film as great as All About Eve is (it won Best Picture in 1951, as well as delivering one of the few double Academy Awards for Best Script and Best Direction to Mankiewicz), it’s no wonder that van Hoe might want to get in on that action; but if you’re not going back to Mary Orr’s original The Wisdom of Eve, and you’re not bringing something new to the adaptation, then you’re just competing against Bette Davis and Anne Baxter! Celeste Holme and George Sanders! Edith Head even did the costumes!
All About Eve is great drama from Hollywood’s Golden Age, while the play is a fine night out in the great West End tradition of “sure thing productions that don’t quite land”.