Written By: Barbara Sherlock
Date: January 10 2019
Location: Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool
A Doll’s House is an interesting choice to kick off the opening 2019 season at Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre. Home to professional, amateur, training, music and all things theatrical, they are no strangers to amazing experimental and new work, but Liverpool Network Theatre Group rise to the challenge with a modern interpretation of Ibsen’s classic 19th Century Norwegian drama. This amateur production of A Doll’s House (Wilder) is brought by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd, and is not suitable for under-16s due to adult themes.
Director Donna M Day brings a fresh and bold approach to the naturalistic play, choosing to keep the local accents of the Liverpool cast and maintain a low-key approach that was filled with tension from the start to the brilliant climax. The eight-strong cast is led by a mesmerising Jessica Martin, who is barely off-stage for the entire three-act performance as banker’s wife and mother of two Nora Helmer. Nora takes us on a hellish three-day family Christmas that starts out on Christmas Eve, with a loving mother and wife celebrating life as her husband Thorwald (Greg Vicary) gains promotion, and things are finally getting better after his life-threatening illness. Outward appearances fade as Nora’s old school-friend Christina (Faye Christiansen) calls on a surprise visit after several years. Nora reveals a long-held secret, prompted by her old friend that, despite her good intentions, threatens her marriage and her entire existence. All this is played out during a whirlwind of Christmas social activity including present opening, feasting and a fancy-dress party.
It’s hard to believe this strong feminist piece was written in 1879. Although laws have changed regarding women’s rights, the play explores control in relationships, from parenting to domestic and financial abuse, and society’s obsession with keeping up appearances especially at ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. Nora presents a picture-book existence that is reflected in a picture-book set, complete with a pink Christmas tree and a table displaying two beautiful dolls representing two beautiful children. Nora’s character is revealed as she transforms from a coquettish and frivolous ‘doll’ pandering to her (mostly absent) husband’s every mood and whim to a woman with a backbone of steel that has always been repressed.
The cast support well, with Faye Christiansen playing a convincing and more worldly-wise friend who is crucial to the plot. Alexander Davies revels in his role as a misunderstood manipulator and sleazy lawyer, Nils Krogstad. There are a few twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes, and Day’s direction navigates them with a few surprises of her own. Christmas jumpers bring comedy relief to what is essentially a dark subject, and Oliver Barden bravely plays the lonely-in-a-crowd, pessimistic, depressive Dr. Rank for laughs. Vicary settles into the role of domineering husband, leaving his best to the final harrowing scenes where husband and wife slug it out as the Christmas lights fade.
There is much to impress here, and I am in awe of the array of talent on offer for what is in fact an amateur production. Sarah Jones doubles as a domestic and child with ease, and Jake Angerer switches between a porter and playing young son Ivar with an engaging energy. However, it is Jessica Martin’s outstanding performance as Nora that will stay with me for a long time, as she really connects with this immense and iconic role. The timing is perfect as people awake from the aftermath of whatever their own Christmas brought. It’s an honest, no holds barred take on reality that is refreshing in an Instagram and Facebook age of perpetual fun and beauty.
Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding