Based on the book by Louisa May Alcott
Adaptation: Laura Turner
Director: Jake Smith
It is anything but easy to condense a substantial novel into two hours of stage time and inevitably Laura Turner’s adaptation skates over, simplifies and changes certain parts of Louisa May Alcott’s original story. Sometimes things happen too suddenly or are not explained: in two cases no sooner is someone desperately ill than they are well again. However, what is much more important is that Turner’s version and Jake Smith’s production serve Alcott’s concept so convincingly, in every respect from set and costumes to four beautifully balanced performances as the March sisters.
Alcott’s novel is always classed as semi-autobiographical, with Jo March making her way as a writer the equivalent of Alcott herself, so it is a welcome conceit to have Jo link scenes up with the words of “her” novel and to climax the play with the publication of Little Women.
From the very first moments the production is pitch-perfect. In the limited East Riding space, Ed Ullyart’s inside/outside set is a miracle of compression and attractive with significant detail. Then the four girls leap into action. Entering to the great Civil War marching song, The Battle Cry of Freedom, they declaim bloodthirsty words of battle and pretend-fight with ferocity. So instantly we know the period, the setting (Concord, Massachusetts, as devotedly pro-Union as anywhere could be) and the fact that, despite the seriousness of the situation, these are still high-spirited girls.
The entry of Marmee brings serious issues to the fore. It’s Christmas (the play is framed by two Christmases) and Marmee proposes a Christmas without presents: they are comparatively poor, but many are genuinely poor and she wishes to instil a sense of civic responsibility. Despite this underlying seriousness, Father’s absence as a pastor with the Northern Army and a potentially life-threatening illness for Beth, the first half passes merrily for the most part. The real growing-up comes after the interval as the great decisions and sadness of life enter the girls’ world and they have to come to terms with their own failings of character. The final Christmas party gives a hard-won happy ending.
The central characters move from being a lively loving group to the independence of womanhood. Laura Peterson’s Jo is at the centre of things, dedicated to her writing this is one of those performances where you can see the character thinking through what she should do, with the famous Jo March temper slow to appear but powerful enough when it does. The same ability to reveal the character’s inner decision-making comes through in Laura Mould’s sensible and sensitive Meg. Louisa Willoughby – all gentle goodness as Beth – never overstates the sickbed pathos and is the more moving as a result. Evie Gutteridge’s mischievous and impulsive Amy, taking full advantage of being the youngest, is a total delight in the first half and then completely credible in the realisation of her own spite and wayward nature.
Sara Beharrell’s Marmee, dispensing wise counsel with kindness, is the moral centre of the play and the men are defined by their role vis-a-vis the women, a nice reverse of the practice in many plays. Richard Avery and Harrison Rose do well with a couple of really neat doubles: Avery as Mr. Laurence the grumpy old fashioned neighbour who comes up with wise insights, and the smooth-talking New York publisher, and Rose as Meg’s gauchely sincere suitor and the initially cold, ultimately passionate professor who helps Jo release her true feelings on the page. Michael Kinsey explores the depth – and makes clear how shallow that depth is – as Laurie, Mr. Laurence’s grandson, with dreams of being a great pianist and living in Paris.
It’s a strong ensemble and Jake Smith’s production is assured and just sentimental enough, no more. If sometimes the grouping gets a bit tight in the limited space, some of the movement – together with the ingenious setting – seems to liberate us from the limitations of the ERT stage.
Runs until January 5, 2020 | Image: Gavin Prest