reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July
You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.
Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.
Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.
Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.
It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.
Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.
Four and a half-star rating.
Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.
This touring production based on the iconic Fellini film of 1954 has been devised by its performers with direction by Sally Cookson and writer Mike Akers. It is a Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) piece which takes advantage of the circus skills of the cast. So it could be defined as physical theatre; in practice, it’s more theatre of physicality.
La Strada tells the story of a village girl in post-war Italy, sold (as her older sister has been) to a travelling showman to act as his assistant. Naïve Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) doesn’t want to leave home – she’d far rather listen to the waves – but her mother has four other children to feed, no husband and scant chances of earning a living.
The showman Zampanò is played by Stuart Goodwin. He lives for the moment, is quick to quarrel and quite happy to travel Italy on his motor-bike truck earning something at each stop – and spending it almost immediately. Goodwin has the measure of this unpleasant survivor.
While Gelsomina picks up some tricks of the barker’s trade, she becomes entranced by the collective world of the circus and in particular by Il Matto (its fool or clown). Bart Soroczynski blends skill with just the right amount of other-worldly feyness to make us see why Gelsomina finds him at one level the sort of kindred spirit for whom she was (perhaps unconsciously) waiting – and why he infuriates Zampanò to the point of murder.
The level of ensemble playing – mime, acrobatics, acting and music – is impressive. Matt Costain, Fabrizio Matteini, Sofie Lybäck, Niv Patel, Niccolò Curradi and Tatiana Santini are the players with instrumentalists Luke Potter, TJ Holmes and Tim Dalling. Benji Bower’s score works well as do the settings and costumes of Katie Sykes.
But the focus of the whole story is Gelsomina. Brisson gives full weight to the simple-mindedness which so irritates some of those with whom she’s in contact. But she also shows us the core of the girl, vulnerable in a land and society forced into selfishness by the needs of its time. it’s a finely balanced portrait.
Four star rating.
La Strada continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 April with matinées on 30 March, 1, 6 and 8 April.
(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.