Ghosts, Old Vic, Bristol <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

You don't ever see it, but Ghosts features a new orphanage, made of wood, where the drunken carpenter, we are told, is careless with matches. Pastor Manders doesn't want to insure the place in case it makes him appear lacking in faith to his flock. So the building goes uninsured and - guess what? - burns down. The real themes, though, are nothing to do with the Norwich Union. They are the fear of exposure, the sins of fathers, and the crushing weight of social and religious convention. And the gloomy Norwegian weather that drives everyone mad.

Mrs Alving, the widow of a sea captain, sits at home in nicely furnished respectability. Her son, Oswald, an artist, is back from warmer climes. He had been packed off to protect him from the taint of her debauched husband. The adored son is, however, paying the price of his father's sins with a terminal hereditary syphilis. It's this "unmentionable" disease that gave the play its 19th-century reputation for vileness.

In Robert Bowman's production, you get a whiff of the fear swirling about this well-upholstered tragedy. The trump card is Sian Thomas, a brilliant comic actress who gives Mrs Alving a tragic depth and burning stage presence. Dressed in black, her hands flick out nervously as she digests the hideous irony surrounding Oswald's predicament.

Simon Shepherd takes on the role of her confidante, Pastor Manders. The problem with his rather engaging performance is that he makes Manders such a booby you can't believe Mrs Alving would have turned to him for help, let alone fancied him. It reduces the impact of a production which elsewhere cranks up the emotional temperature to impressive levels.

Sam Crane is a sweaty, white-faced Oswald whose reliance on the decanter is just the tip of his iceberg of problems. "My life is fucked," he shouts at one point. Frank McGuinness's super-fluent translation is occasionally as desperate as Oswald is to escape the confines of the 19th century.

It's a shame that the central relationship between Mrs Alving and Manders doesn't dig deeper, as these are the scenes in which Ibsen's displays his incredible ear for the low grumblings of social change. But this Ghosts certainly delivers the play's infectious craving for sunshine.

To 17 Feb (0117-987 7877)