David Eldridge, based on the Dogme film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov, and Bo Hr. Hansen
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring

Production photo
Production photo

The story is a simple one .a birthday party for sixty year old Helge (Rupert Frazer) who will be surrounded by his large, loving family gathered together for the celebration but all is not as it seems. Even Ian McNeil’s deceptively simple set has some very surprising secrets.

The first scene shows two brothers greeting each other – one ia Christian (Christian Coulson), a highly successful restaurateur arriving from Paris, and the other Michael (Laurence Mitchell), a very objectionable character who is not invited to the forthcoming party due to his behaviour last year (not revealed, but in view of his present attitude and the way he treats his wife, it must have been appalling), and he didn’t even come to his sister’s funeral.

Michael is exaggeratedly delighted to see his brother, but Christian is quieter, withdrawn. There are undercurrents here which may be revealed later – as indeed they are!

More of the family arrive, and a highly volatile bunch they are, constantly excitedly arguing and fighting – physically as well as verbally. The director who ‘must not be credited’ keeps the actors almost constantly on the move – mostly at each others throats – not to mention other regions! There are also, however, contrasting times of complete immobility and silence!

Eventually they all sit down to the birthday dinner – Festen means celebration – and they are quite a crowd – the two brothers, their sister Helene (Miranda Foster), Michael’s wife and young daughter, bearded forgetful grandfather (Walter Hall) and two family friends – as well as Helge and his wife Else (Belinda Sinclair). Just a normal family celebration, and Else makes a speech congratulating all of her family for making her so proud of them.

It is when Michael begins to make his birthday speech entitled ‘When Daddy takes a bath’ that terrible secrets are exposed .secrets which he has been holding within himself for years, and at last as some sort of catharsis he can relieve himself of the burden.

Sister Helene has her own demons, and copes by studying anthropology, and apparently bringing home one black boyfriend after another. Not only does her mother get them mixed up, but the latest (Mark Theadore) is taunted by the family as being ‘a monkey, Hottentot,’ implying inferior, but in fact he is the only sane, sensible one among them, with an inner strength keeping him calm amidst the mayhem, and patiently handing one china plate after another to Helene so she can smash them to relieve her frustration.

Guest Poul (Robert Goodale)’s pathetic “I suffer from depression and today has not been a good day” was very relevant, but in fact he was the most comic character of all and happily led the line of dancing around – and over the table top too.

Frequently seeming weird – well, it is Danish and they are certainly a very histrionically dysfunctional family – the play is gripping and intriguing as secrets are revealed which some of the family (one in particular) would rather keep hidden. In fact they continue with their family rituals and congratulatory toasts just as if bombshells of knowledge had not exploded in front of them. A birthday party to remember – although some of the participants would rather forget!

This review first appeared in Theatreworld Internet Magazine

"Festen" tours to Cardiff, Windsor, Glasgow, Mold, Brighton, Cambridge, Richmond, Nottingham, Malvern, Salford and Plymouth

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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