Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte, adapted by Bristol Old Vic company
National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic
The Lowry
08 April 2017 to 15 April 2017

If you’re expecting a literal run through of the 170-year-old supreme classic of literature you’ll be very disappointed with this Bristol Old Vic/National Theatre co-production. If you want that sort of thing, best re-read the book.

What we get here instead, with the launch of this important national tour, is an interestingly imaginative slice of theatre that takes a fresh look at the original, with Jane now, fashionably, a heroine of feminism as she transforms from ill-treated child via increasingly blossoming governess to the second Mrs Rochester.

Sharply and very skilfully directed by the now-risen star Sally Cookson, and devised by the original company at the Bristol Old Vic three years ago, the ensemble of 10 – mostly new for this tour – act their socks off as they race from one character to another on Michael Vale’s set of white curtains and wooden platforms and ladders.

It’s a structure partly inhabited by a three-piece band because, surprisingly perhaps but, arguably appropriately in context here, music, often very much not of the period, plays a considerable role in the piece.

Benji Bower’s melodic score for guitar, piano, drums, double bass, accordion and so on (some of it pre-recorded), is often pivotal, with mezzo Melanie Marshall, as Bertha, the until now incoherent mad woman in the attic, stalking the proceedings and, somewhat inspired, bursting into song with, the totally anachronistic, Mad About The Boy at the pivotal point where Jane realises she has the hots for Rochester.

Marshall, from Oldham I believe, one of the of the original Bristol company, excels here, providing a couple of the almost operatically powerful moments that the production overall could do with several more of.

Despite its length of around three hours – the Bristol original was actually told in two parts on separate days – the evening proceeds pretty swiftly.

The early years however detained me for far too long, as orphaned Jane is left to the untender mercies of Aunt Reed and then Mr Brocklehurst, principal of Lowood School. And that’s partly because adults playing children can never be taken seriously.

And - throughout the evening I’m afraid - there is far too much toe-curling twee comedy of the heightened theatrical sort that audiences, but not me, seem to love. The director must presumably feel light relief helps the serious medicine go down. Me, I’d shoot that bloody dog.

So, on to the adult Jane, a figure who keeps much of her tightly contained childhood experiences at the root of her character, exposed and expressed in the course of the deeply-felt internal monologues that are delivered by various voices from the cast.

Manchester-born Nadia Clifford’s Jane is of course entirely central and she is spirited but touchingly vulnerable and I have to say, pretty much absolutely wonderful throughout. I found her completely riveting, tiny, feisty absolutely the Jane I wanted to see behaving exactly as I would hope Jane would behave in all circumstances.

My wife says Tim Delap is her perfect Rochester as well, so that’s pretty good too.

Overall, liked it quite a lot, but wish the director and creators hadn’t pandered down to lack of taste, hadn't been quite so “theatrical” and instead had taken everything a little more seriously.

Reviewer: Alan Hulme

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Comments

Comment by Kevin Bourke

I have never really been of the "supreme classic of literature" school of thought when it comes to Jane Eyre, I'm afraid, and the ongoing Brontefication of the world leaves me as cold as a plucky put-upon heroine on a windswept moor. Doubtless this contributed to the way I found the whole opening "terrible childhood" section of this adaptation both interminable and actually quite irritating. But once that's out of the way, there's an awful lot to commend this imaginative production, notably, as Alan points out, Nadia Clifford's exhausting performance as a proto-feminist Jane. I also happened to like the dog but, on the other hand, could have done without the nudge-in-the-ribs insertion of 'Mad About The Boy', let alone the 'you've got to be kidding me!' literalism of the first Mrs. Rochester singing 'Crazy' - I think we'd all got it by then. Speaking of the 'madwoman in the attic', if we really do have to keep banging on about the Brontes, why doesn't anyone adapt Jean Rhys' 'Wide Sargasso Sea', which has recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday, for the theatre?

Comment by Robert Beale

It makes an interesting comparison with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, at Bolton. This one, of course, has music - but I tend to agree that the musical component, apart from creating atmosphere and dividing up the scenes, doesn't contribute much except to lengthen the evening (and it provides a neat, 21st-century-liberal-correct, way of dealing with the idea of a 'mad' person being key to the story!). Here we have seven actors sharing 16 roles - there they have eight carrying 13, which is a better ratio. I think Deborah McAndrew's adaptation was better, actually, though maybe Anne B gave her a less daunting task than Charlotte does.

Other than that, Nadia Clifford's superb performance is the really gripping element. Maybe historians of theatre will look back on this as an archetype of the production values of a cash-strapped era - abstract (but very well-employed) set, minimal props, multi-tasking cast ... and nodding at feminism, though in my view quite justifiably here.

Comment by David Cunningham

Enjoyed Jane Eyre but found the overtly theatrical aspects a bit distracting. As with any production devised in a democratic manner by the members of the company it feels like everyone has had their idea included regardless of whether the concept really worked.

Comment by Paul Genty

It does surprise me sometimes what prompts audiences to go in droves to see particular shows, and I'm curious whether many will go to see this one more than once.

I can understand wanting to see the favourite Bronte novel on stage, but do fans come away with a curious sense of deflation that Bronte was only one thread in a wide range of "theatrical" stuff going on? Stuff that, like David C, they might find gets in the way of a good wallow in a classic novel?

I must admit I enjoyed the show overall, and particularly Nadia Clifford's determined performance, but I could have done with a little less of the dog, fewer of the contemporary song references (though Melanie Marshall was, as always, compelling), and less of the B&Q gazebo structure and steel ladders, which seemed to have very little point but prompted a lot of dashing about to no real purpose.