Writer: Louisa May Alcott
Adaptor: Anne Odeke
Director: Natasha Rickman
Following last week’s opening production of Romeo & Juliet in Chester’s majestic Grosvenor Park, the annual Storyhouse Open Air summer season continues with the perennial coming-of-age classic ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott. But what a contrast! Last weekend we were baking in temperatures rarely seen before. Tonight, it was rain, rain, rain. The cast continued, however, and valiantly defied the elements to deliver a first-rate show, despite the many empty seats and the constant downpour. Departing from the novel’s original American Civil War setting, this brand-new version occurs during the first world war, and takes place in Chester itself.
The Marchs’ are a close-knit family, the father has gone off to fight in the war, and the quartet of energetic teen-age sisters simply want to love life. Jo is the feisty intellectual one, desiring to be a writer, and railing against the subjugation of women in society. Opening with a suffragette rally, the theme is set – Live Your Dream!
Paislie Reid’s Jo is a whirlwind of energy, striding about in often ‘manly’ attire, and refusing to conform. Slight of stature, but fierce and bold; a match for any man. She is complemented perfectly by Haylie Jones’ Meg, who gives as equally strong a performance as she did playing Mercutio a week ago. Molly Madigan (with one arm in a sling) breaks the audience’s heart as the tragic Beth, and gives a simply beautiful speech at one point, with the actor soaked to the skin by the downpour. She also excelled in a gentle, delicately emotional scene where she is taught to play piano by the repressed and melancholic Mr Lawrence. Unfortunately, in a different scene, she slipped heavily on the rain-sodden set, causing the audience to gasp in horror. Such are the risks of open-air theatre. Completing the foursome was the excellent Joelle Brabban as the temperamental Amy.
Samuel Awoyo was sweet-natured, and comically awkward as the shy Laurie Lawrence, with Robert Maskell giving a beautifully understated performance as the grief-stricken Mr Lawrence. Eddy Payne, who easily stole the show last week as Benvolio, threatened to do so again as the put-upon German schoolteacher Mr Bahaer. Payne seemed on fire, and revelled in additional smaller roles, including a supremely nervous and terrified soldier, and a horrendous spoilt rich brat; he even played the part of a giant bumble bee, whilst making surreal buzzing sounds with the help of a kazoo! Nicola Blackman, so hugely impressive and hilarious as Juliet’s nurse last week, was equally outstanding as the monstrous Aunt March, and a karate-chopping nun! Alice Keedwell was an understated, loving Mrs March. Oliver Nazareth Aston as the sensitive and loveable post man, John Brooke, and Samantha McIlwaine as the snooty and awful Sally completed the cast.
This adaptation by Anne Odeke may upset a few purists, but works well in making the characters and settings more relatable to a modern audience. Women are still suffering under a patriarchal society, teenagers are still battling with the emotional and physical turmoil of becoming young adults, and we still try to shut out the never-ending news of far-off wars whilst living our lives as well as we can. Director Natasha Rickman addressed all these issues, whilst keeping the pace buoyant and entertaining, and allowed the inner lives of the characters to break through. Following the cast ‘curtain call’, the sight of a giant teddy bear sitting sadly, in the heavy rain, seemed to sum up the all too melancholic nature of life.
Runs in REP until 28 August 2022