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