Pillars of the Community, NT Lyttleton, London

Now who's the daddy?
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The Independent Culture

Besides getting into deep water with what he presents as an efficiency drive - ordering his protesting foreman to fix ship hulls at speed with new machines - Bernick is also surreptitiously ensuring that a planned railway line is rerouted and stops in his coastal town. This is done, you understand, out of the Christian goodness of his heart, to engineer a better future for the locals. Or is it, ahem, to keep his own shipping company lucrative and to increase the value of his shares? In terms of faux virtue, even the ladies who congregate in Bernick's home to listen to his patriarchal sermons gossip salaciously about the town's less puritanical days. Furthermore, while they condemn American entrepreneurs as if they are the hub of all evil, their own outpost bears a trace of the Wild West. Betty's cousin, Justin Salinger's scoffing Hilmar, kicks around in a straw hat that's half-way to a Stetson and mockingly dares Bernick's little boy, Olaf, to cross the ocean. Then the alleged prodigal Johan returns, having sailed away years before, taking the blame for a sexual scandal and a robbery with him. Now, he threatens to destroy the glowing reputation and empire which his once-beloved friend has built on appallingly dodgy foundations. Johan is supported by his feisty, New-Worldly half-sister Lona, who was once Bernick's sweetheart (but with no wealth of her own).

Elliott's production gets off to a slow start. The Bernicks' family tree is over-complicated, but also some of the acting isn't absolutely fine-tuned. Paul Moriarty is a tad wooden in his big scene as the outraged foreman, threatened with the sack. Rae Smith's set is oddly clumsy too, with walls hoisted away to reveal backstage scaffolding. Bernick's plywood parlour was already, quite obviously, a flimsy sham, like his life. Later as well, Elliott allows a few silly histrionic moments. As Lewis becomes more guilt-stricken, he develops the habit of flinging himself on to chairs, contorting sideways and freezing with his legs in seeming mid-sprint - presumably failing to give his own conscience the slip. But quibbles aside, he is forcefully arrogant and feverish. Salinger is amusing and charismatically tetchy, Joseph Millson's Johan is beautifully impassioned, and the women with bridling, natural spirits are markedly strong, especially Bríd Brennan as the long-suffering Marta and Lesley Manville's Lona. The latter is striking for being accommodated in this production - which uses a new English version by Samuel Adamson, drawing on Ibsen's alternative drafts - as a shocked and disillusioned solitary figure, far from cosily reconciled with her old flame.

Ibsen's mounting tensions and ethical dilemmas are gripping and the climax is horribly two-faced as Lewis steps forward to address the audience as the assembled populace, publicly repenting his misdemeanours but, rather than resigning, turning this into a bid for more power.

To 4 February, 020 7452 3000

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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