Mabou Mines Dollhouse, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

With towering performances by little men and minutely detailed portrayals by large women, this sizeist interpretation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, by the experimental-theatre company Mabou Mines, both stretches and reduces the original.

Applying what the company's founder-director, Lee Breuer, calls the "politics of scale", the show features male actors of restricted growth as the patriarchal figures, and tall women (one of whom, the maid, seems even bigger by appearing pregnant) as their objects of patronising attention.

But, while it is compelling in the new perspectives it offers, using Ibsen's words in a new adaptation, it is also contrived to the extent of cheap trickery in its take on Ibsen's pioneering feminist tract about the doll-wife who finally escapes the nursery. The combination of psychological realism and stylised sizing gets in the way of emotional engagement.

In Mark Povinelli's Torvald, we see less of the paternalist baddie and more of a small-minded man with a big ego and an even bigger libido trapped in a small frame. Opposite him (or, rather, over him), Maude Mitchell makes a huge impression as Nora, a squeaky-voiced, cooing bimbo-doll, all babyish capering and bobbing golden ringlets. But this detracts from the complexity of her character, so that her relationship with Krogstad, to whom she is in thrall, becomes one of childish petulance.

When Nora announces how many hours she has to live before her unwitting deception is disclosed, her words are so laden with melodramatic and music-hall gesture that they lose any suicidal edge. Sympathy is not something that this clever but distancing concept arouses – until near the end, that is.

Nora's eventual release – Mitchell bravely stripped bare, and looming large from a theatre box over Povinelli's tiny Torvald, stranded on the stage, – becomes a powerful 20-minute operatic scena. Freed from the belittling constraint of having to contort herself into a pliable plaything, Nora lip-synchs her bold departure speech, set as an aria, while Torvald grasps thin air as he tries to persuade her to descend to his level.

Breuer places his production within a claustrophobic frame of red velvet drapes and the enforced intimacy of a dolls' house, whose walls – in a stunning coup de théâtre – finally open up. Underscored pretty well throughout by music by (and based on) Grieg, the movement is alternately balletic, robotic and crudely erotic, with dreamlike, Fellini-esque sequences.

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