Little Eyolf (Almeida Theatre)

Richard Eyre’s production of the classic Ibsen stars Lydia Leonard and Jolyon Coy

George Bernard Shaw once described Little Eyolf as a kind of "torture," arguing that one might shy away from its agonised soul-searching "as one puts off a visit to the dentist." If only all dentistry was as pain-free as Richard Eyre‘s adaptation. For a play that should rankle with recriminations and regret, it drifts, instead, into soft-focus, never managing to transmit its feeling beyond the footlights.

One of Ibsen’s last plays, Little Eyolf was written after his famous stretch of taut social critiques, two of which (Ghosts and Hedda Gabbler) Eyre has already staged, to great acclaim, at the Almeida. The play takes us high into the Norwegian mountains for a family drama infused with nature and Nordic folklore. Its naturalism intermingles with expressionism, and slips, subtly, into something poetic and profoundly existential – a sense that life’s pain is best met with humanity. Some rate it Ibsen’s best.

After the death of their disabled son Eyolf, drowned in the town below, estranged spouses Alfred and Rita sink into grief. They had used their child in a tug-of-war, but here Jolyon Coy and Lydia Leonard suggest lifelessness instead of bitterness. "Our love’s been like a bonfire," she says, "and it’s burned itself out."

He can no longer look at her, and Coy’s inexpressive physicality – arms always hanging at his side – conveys the numb dissociation of depression, apt for a man that has found some clarity lost in the mountains, alone. Leonard starts louche and withering, but seizes up with maternal guilt.

Alfred’s guilt is sexual: unable to acknowledge the mutual attraction between he and his half-sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby, bright and sad). It’s another wedge in the Allmers’ marriage – a second Eyolf, as per Asta’s childhood nickname.

Much of the play is introspection and Eyre’s adaptation clips the curlicues off Ibsen’s dialogue, but perhaps clips its wings in the process. Where the play needs to surge, it slumps: growing first morose, then bathetic. It ends with a married couple holding hands beneath the stars, committing to live charitable lives.

His staging is too painterly. Tim Hatley places the action in front of a panorama of silhouetted mountains, the whitewood stage serving as a frame, as if the Allmers exist outside of the picture, at odds with both nature and other people. When Leonard’s Rita strips in an attempt to reach her husband, she’s a nude in front of a landscape, while, wrapped in several black shawls, Eileen Walsh’s Rat Woman – a local Pied Piper – blends right in with the blue-grey hills.

She also symbolises the poor below – her blackened teeth jarring against the Allmer’s pristine retreat. That Alfred has stopped his "life’s work" – a treatise on The Responsibility of the Human Being – is pointed, and Eyre turns in a critique of inequality and atomisation. His script is shot through with solitude; the words ‘self’ and ‘alone’ recur. It’s too unfeeling though and, as the great soul-search gets into gear, it’s more self-regarding mope than anything else.

Little Eyolf runs at the Almeida Theatre until 9 January