All About Eve

Rating: 4

By Ian Shuttleworth

I’m not a great fan of stage shows that use live video to no real effect. When they use it to show action that takes place onstage but can’t be seen, I positively loathe it: building a set that conceals your action just seems inimical to the whole idea of theatre. And that’s what director Ivo van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld do with All About Eve: they build a couple of cubicles upstage and point cameras in to show us what’s going on in there.

Ah, but this is like one of those two-level crosswords, where not only is there a point, but there’s a quick one and then a more cryptic one. The quick one is that it makes sense when showing, say, events in a different room at a party, or scheming Eve’s secret reactions in a bathroom to what someone’s saying to her through the door. The more complicated one is partly that this story – best known through the multi-Oscar-winning 1950 film – includes a lot of dialogue about the differences between theatre and film. 

Deeper still, though, its tale of how star-struck fan Eve insinuates her way into the life of stage star Margo Channing, studies her on- and offstage, manipulates events and eventually supplants her, is all about stardom and how we look at stars. Van Hove’s fondness for video, this time, gets right to the heart of the matter by making us always aware that we’re watching, and watching in certain ways, both the characters of stars and the real stars who play them, namely Gillian Anderson as Margo and Lily James as Eve.

This gets most telling of all by using a mini-camera in the mirror of the stage dressing-room table. We get to see, in extreme close-up, a masterclass in response acting from Anderson in the first phase, taking her stage make-up off as she is introduced to her supposed fan, Eve. Later, when Margo begins to twig Eve’s plot, a video effect reveals one reason for her fear – she’s scared she’s getting too old to remain a star – by ageing the dressing-table image by decades; later still, when Eve has more or less succeeded in seizing stardom, her face in the mirror morphs into Margo’s.

Where Bette Davis was corrosive as Margo in the film, Anderson is magnificently glacial until her ice shatters; James’s Eve is a more obvious schemer than Anne Baxter onscreen. No one could be as urbane as George Sanders, but Stanley Townsend as devious critic Addison DeWitt is as smoothly devastating as all too many folk believe my colleagues and I wish we were.

It’s not a show that makes outright demands for you to think about all this, but it subtly draws your hand towards your chin for a good stroking.

Until 11 May at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2: 0844-482 5151, National Theatre live screening in selected cinemas on 11 April