First Night: Hedda Gabler, Old Vic, London

3.00

Sheridan Smith's high-stakes Gabler gamble hasn't paid off

I simply longed to be her chihuahua as I watched Sheridan Smith's irresistible portrayal of Elle, the not-so-dumb bimbo in the musical of Legally Blonde. I ached to dry her tears when, in another Olivier-award winning performance, the actress played a plucky former barmaid in Flare Path. These parts are not exactly conventional rungs, though, in the ascent to performing Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, the disdainful daughter of a disgraced general who is about as cuddly, bubbly and staunch as an anaconda.

So Smith, with her down-to-earth openness and warmth, has been cast against type in a role that has been described as the Hamlet of the female repertoire in its demands. It is with a heavy heart that I have to report that this calculated, potentially refreshing gamble has not paid off in a production by Anna Mackmin that is damagingly deficient in tension or any sense of sick, black-joke inexorability as the escape hatches close on a heroine whose schemes all backfire. Hedda Gabler is the victim both of circumstances in a male-dominated society and her own contradictory, destructive nature. In recent years, the balance between these two truths has tilted in the direction of emphasising a Hedda who is the twisted author of her own oppression. This is redressed here to the extent that you can see that Smith's Hedda lethally meddles with other people's lives as a warped compensation for her feelings of frustration and entrapment. And in the over-explicit Brian Friel adaptation used here, she gets to expatiate centre-stage on the sort of "joyless freedom" she experiences when "possessed" by nihilistic mischief.

But I'm afraid that this is in many respects an inadequate account of the part. Got up to look like a Georgette Heyer villainess, Smith projects effortfully in a strained high-pitched voice (Hedda is a natural mezzo) and in an unsteadily refined accent and for all the world comes over as a lovely Northern lass who has been landed with the awkward burden of portraying a self-hating, bitchy sophisticate.

There's no scary force-field around this Hedda or any of the perverse magnetism of the bully or – even when she's taking pot-shots at Darell D'Silva's Judge Brack – a crackle of the danger she has become to herself and others because of her toxic marital boredom. When she manouevres her old flame Loevborg (Daniel Lapaine) back to the brink, her approach is hectoring rather than sly.

There seems to be little going on under the archly appraising smile, so that you get the odd impression of vacancy rather than of a complex woman mystified and stricken by a conscious inner emptiness. Smith would better suited to the role of Thea, the schoolmate Hedda terrorised and whom she now envies for having the courage to defy convention that she lacks. This production pointedly highlights the contrast between the two characters at the end, as Fenella Woolgar's mountingly assertive Thea gathers up the notes for reconstituting Loevborg's book and then determinedly, and rather disgustedly, walks away from the suicide scene.

In a very funny performance, Adrian Scarborough is arguably over-endearing as Tesman, Hedda's boring academic husband who is absurdly proud of his work on "domestic crafts in 10thcentury Holland". But to the question "what is a nice girl like Sheridan Smith doing in a play like this", the sad answer is "not terribly well".

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable