(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 September)
How do you create something which appeals to all age groups, from nursery school through to great-grand parents? One good starting point is to take a well-loved book and then work live theatre’s own very special magic on it. That’s what happens in the Emma Reeves’ stage version of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, now on a second major UK tour.
Director Sally Cookson and designer Katie Sykes set it in a circus. Not the slick, balletic modern version but a tinsel tawdry one typical of the late 19th century. Foundling Hetty (Phoebe Thomas) has red hair, a vivid imagination and an enormous amount of indignation as she seeks to establish her own proper identity and reclaim the comfort and nurture of a real family. The last one seems to offer itself when she’s taken in by baby farmer Peg (Sarah Goddard).
But Peg has to return her foundlings to the Hospital once they reached an age when they can be taught and sent out as servants (the girls) or cannon fodder (the boys). Hetty and Saul (Nik Howden), her special friend among her “brothers”, sneak into a circus where bareback rider Madame Adeline ((Nikki Warwick) is the star attraction and whose red hair prompts Hetty to decide that this must surely be her real mother.
She isn’t, of course. Hetty’s “picturing” has led her, not for the first time, down the wrong track entirely. it’s all beautifully and sincerely conveyed by Thomas – the feistiest of heroines and guaranteed to win masculine as well as feminine hearts – and Goddard, who doubles the other mother figure of Ida. Warwick comes into her own in the second act and there’s an abrasive sketch of Matron Bottomly by Matt Costain. Mark Kane plays Gideon, partially crippled and vindictive with it.
The circus skills flow naturally between this talented cast; the prancing circus ponies and long-trunked elephant are particularly enjoyable. musicians Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter – instrumentalists and commentators in the clown-Deburau tradition – provide the accompaniment (the composer-arranger is Benji Bower). The folk song “Over the hills and far away” haunts the story. It’s partly a metaphor for Hetty’s longings but also an invitation to the audience to loose its own imagination fo two hours. Or even for a little bit longer.
Hetty Feather run at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 October and can also be seen at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 23 and 25 October.