Music: Christopher Ash
Book and lyrics: Carl Miller
Director: Adam Lenson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
If the gentle sounds of Chopin would fit well with the novels of Jane Austen, what would suit the Brontés? Iron Maiden? The proposition is carried forward in this new musical, telling the story the Bronté siblings and setting it to a pulsating rock score which reflects the harshness of life in Victorian Yorkshire, struggles against poverty and disease and an unforgiving moorland backdrop.
There is already an established link between the Brontés and the rock world and Siobhan Athwal’s appearance playing Emily, with wild dark hair and eccentric movements, makes a reference to it that seems unlikely to be coincidental. 40 Years ago, when Kate Bush was recording Wuthering Heights, a show like this might have been developed as a concept album and, now in 2018, we could have been seeing a concert performance of that album. Perhaps director Adam Lenson had this thought in mind for his staging, the four performers, dressed in drab period costumes, all using hand-held microphones on a wooden platform with the audience on three sides of them and a four-piece band on the fourth.
Natasha Barnes gives a powerhouse performance as the gritty Charlotte, last survivor of the siblings and narrator of the story. “F*** off, I’m writing Jane Eyre” she yells at Anne, signalling her determination to succeed as a writer. Yet even she is forced to marry a lowly curate, the very thing that she would not allow the heroine of her most famous novel to do. Athwal’s Emily is a brooding, tormented genius who insists “no one must know that Emily Bronté writes anything”. Molly Lynch’s Anne is quieter and more sensible, fretting over the impossibility of finding a husband and thereby escaping the family’s parsonage home in the town of Hawarth. Their father, curate Patrick Bronté is not seen in the show.
There is comedy and pathos in Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s portrayal of Branwell, the only brother. A failure as an artist, unable to hold down a job, a drunkard and a womaniser, he has sad delusions of grandeur, likening himself to Napoleon. “Branwell Bronté had sisters; who would have known?” he proclaims, seeming to recognise the irony in the words as soon as he speaks them.
Carl Miller’s book and lyrics are more concerned with establishing and developing characters than with driving forward a strong central narrative and each song becomes the heart of an episode in the story. Christopher Ash’s throbbing hard and soft rock score demands a second hearing (bring on that concept album) and, even if some of the singing is uneven, Joe Bunker’s band does full justice to the music, with himself on keyboards, Kat Bax on bass, , Nathan Gregory on drums and Isabel Torres on guitars.
As was common in the 19th Century, the three women writers all adopted male pseudonyms. Talk of “the tyranny of patriarchal Britain” occurs repeatedly and an overlong ending emphasises the story’s feminist themes, leading into the title song which bemoans lives wasted – Branwell’s obviously, but also, implicitly, those of oppressed and undervalued women everywhere. The songs give the show a thrilling energy and even if this is not yet a fully-formed musical, it is certainly not an evening wasted.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks