Writer: Jacqueline Wilson, adapted by Emma Reeves
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Victorian England. A desperate young mother is unable to care for her fiery-haired baby daughter. What can she do to give her the best start? Why, enter the Foundling Hospital lottery, of course, where a few will be taken in, clothed, fed, given a name and prepared for life at their station – either as a servant girl or soldier. And so Hetty Feather is introduced to us
Foundling orphans are fostered until the age of five and so Hetty finds herself living an idyllic life in the countryside. She finds a talent for “picturing” – imagining oneself elsewhere, living as a bird or squirrel, for example. She visits a travelling circus where she finds herself assisting Mme Adeline with her horse act and becomes convinced she has found her real mother, but the circus moves on before they can be reunited. But foundlings have to be returned to the Foundling Hospital aged five and so Hetty is wrenched from her home to live a life of almost military efficiency, drudgery and misery.
Hetty still hopes to find her real mother and her real name, taking the opportunity to slip away during the Queen’s golden jubilee celebrations, a rare outing for the foundlings. But will life away from the hospital turn out for the best?
Immediately upon entering the theatre, one is struck by the set. A largely empty stage with industrial strength ladders and rigging for aerial silks, ropes and an aerial hoop dominate. Stepladders, benches and boxes are brought on and off and allow for a dizzying array of levels to be used. Many of the cast are accomplished performers using the aerial equipment and the young audience is encouraged – required – to use their own picturing skills as the action moves between locations. This is a visual feast of colour and skill – the realisation of a circus elephant with its, to Hetty, vast size is a triumph of Katie Sykes’ design. A sequence with aerial silks depicting the courtship of Hetty’s real parents is remarkably beautiful and poignant.
The music, composed by Benji Bower and played by Seamas H Carey and Luke Potter is also an integral part of the whole experience, appearing to emerge from the stage setting and telegraphing moods.
With such spectacle, one might find that characterisations can be shallow – but no. While the scary adults in the Foundling Hospital might be caricatures, the central characters of Hetty, her family and friends are nuanced and satisfyingly three-dimensional and believable.
At the centre is Phoebe Thomas as Hetty. Thomas puts over the life-view of the child as she grows from birth. The simple joy of her foster family, her fears and isolation on her return to the hospital, her longing to discover her real mother are all drawn convincingly. We are living her dream with her and her joy when she discovers herself is palpably shared by the audience.
Sarah Goddard is the warm foster mother and also Ida, the hospital servant who befriends Hetty. She brings a real warmth to both. It is to Matt Costain’s credit that until reading in the programme, this reviewer had no idea he was playing both the kindly foster brother and the unyielding Matron Bottomly, such is the differentiation a little costume and a large portion of acting skills are able to provide. Mark Kane’s Gideon is heart-wrenchingly timid and needy; on their return to the hospital and their separation, one finds oneself genuinely fearing for his welfare.
Every element – acting, circus skills, music, swift and smooth changeovers – come together in perfect harmony for a great night for all ages. No single aspect is out of balance. The economical adaptation by Emma Reeves and sharp direction from Sally Cookson ensure that the audience and its totally rapt youngsters will be picturing Hetty’s story for some time yet. Not just a story for young people (although an excellent introduction for youngsters to what live theatre can deliver), Rose Theatre Kingston’sHetty Feather stands on its own two feet as powerful entertainment for all. A sensational piece of theatre.
Runs until 12 March 2016 and on tour | Image: Helen Murray