Theatre: Ghosts King's Head, London

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The Independent Culture
When Ibsen's Ghosts was first performed in Britain, the Daily Telegraph famously called it an "open sewer". But, for modern audiences, it's problematic for quite different reasons. It demands hard work, in the same way that Shaw's plays do. Men vs women; age vs youth; liberal progress vs ecclesiastical conservatism: Ghosts is full of such oppositions, and a good production needs to leave an audience in no doubt about the social nuances of a forgotten era. What did it mean, in a small Norwegian town in 1881, to be a middle-aged woman who once deserted her husband? Or to be a maid, or an artist - or a priest?

When I first saw Ghosts, at the Young Vic in the mid-Eighties, what struck me first was how clearly those kind of questions were answered. And what made an impression next was the strangeness of the play's central symbol: a son who inherits syphilis from his father - "The sins of the father will be visited on the children". David Hunt's production of Mike Poulton's adaptation doesn't quite hit it off on either of these counts. What made this 19th-century society tick remained a mystery, and Osvald's disease remained nothing more than that. And all this despite some accomplished acting.

At times, Christopher Hunter's Parson Manders seemed to be drawing inspiration from the more extravagant type of cricket umpire, at one moment thrusting both arms above his head, as though to signal that Engstrand has just hit an enormous six into the nearest fjord. It's a performance that, especially early on, seems too large for the King's Head's small space. That said, Manders is an unenviable part to play. He has to be a moralist and a prig, and yet convince an audience that he once had enough sexual charisma to attract Mrs Alving, and he just about pulls it off.

Hunter is joined in his spirited assault on the text by Sion Probert's Dickensian good-for-nothing workman Engstrand. By contrast, Charlotte Cornwell's Mrs Alving proves the old adage that less is more, lifting a finger here or a lip there to suggest a sharp mind and spirited humour beneath her maternal calm.

Guy Parry's Osvald, however, seems not just depressed but also monotone. Osvald is Mrs Alving's prodigal son, an artist returned home from the freedoms of the warm south, and as such he ought to be a counterbalance to all the characters who've spent their lives trapped in the countryside. Parry isn't.

As for the set, the challenge is to avoid the cliches of a claustrophobic, furniture-laden interior. Designer Karen Keene's answer is unvarnished pine furniture and off-white walls. The trouble is that the scenery is so shabbily painted. Should that matter? I think so. Because without a sense of the bourgeois gentility of the Alving house, another of the play's many structural conflicts - bourgeois Norway against the Bohemian south - is lost. And without such nuances made plain, a great play risks becoming a period piece.

n To 7 July. Booking: 0171-226 1916