Review: Little Women at The Space

The story of me trying to see Little Women at the Space over the last few weeks has become almost as epic as Louisa May Alcott’s novel, which is why this review comes so late in the run (the final performance is tonight). After a first cancellation by me and a second by the theatre after a cast member was taken ill an hour into the show, I was determined to make it back and see the play all the way through – and I’m really glad I did.

Updated and moved to London, Rachael Claye’s adaptation of the classic novel makes the story accessible to a whole new audience, while still remaining true – with one significant exception, which is explained in the programme – to Alcott’s central plot. This follows the March sisters, Meg (Isabel Crowe), Jo (Amy Gough), Beth (Miranda Horn) and Amy (Stephanie Dickson), four very different personalities who each have a clear role within the family home, but have yet to figure out where they belong in the world. Over the course of the evening, we see them take their first steps over the threshold between childhood and adulthood, experiencing all the opportunities and pitfalls that life has to offer, but never leaving behind the strong family ties that hold them all together.

Photo credit: Matthew Thomas

This family feel extends to the audience, who are so drawn in by the drama and relationships that when something very, very bad happens in Act 2 (anyone who’s read the book will know what I mean) we feel it almost as keenly as the characters. The production achieves this connection with admirable efficiency; the opening scene, which sees the sisters preparing for Christmas, very quickly establishes their different personalities, and director Sepy Baghaei begins both acts with cast members already on stage, chatting and interacting – a simple but very clever way of making us feel we’ve stepped into a world that already exists, even when there’s nobody there to see it.

The production is made even more compelling by the strength of the performances. Each of the four sisters embraces her unique character – Isabel Crowe as Meg, who’s so busy being everything to everyone she’s forgotten who she is; Amy Gough as Jo: witty, creative but with a fiery temper that often gets her into trouble; Stephanie Dickson as spoilt Amy, who as the youngest always expects to get what she wants; and Miranda Horn, who easily captures our hearts as sweet, shy Beth, with a fragility that just makes you want to take care of her. At this particular performance, the girls’ devoted and hard-working mother Ma was played by Rachael Claye (understudying original cast member Victoria Jeffrey) – and in a way, this felt appropriate; the play is, after all, her baby and her emotional connection to both story and characters was clear to see.

This is a story about women, and so it’s only right that the depth of emotion in the production should come from the female characters. There are some men in the play though, and they’re brilliant, providing some much-needed humour to lighten the mood. Sean Stevenson is charmingly mischievous (and a great musician) as next door neighbour Laurie, Joshua Stretton brings an endearing awkwardness to the role of Laurie’s tutor John Brooke, and in a late appearance, Jonathan Hawkins almost steals the show as the eccentric Professor Bhaer.

Photo credit: Matthew Thomas

The updating to 21st century London also works surprisingly well; there’s a freshness to the adaptation that makes it feel like a whole new story, but it’s still recognisably Little Women, and if you know the story there’s that reassuring comfort/dread of knowing more or less what’s going to happen next (if you don’t, prepare yourself for some twists and turns). Some creative licence has been taken with plot details, but the Marches’ contrasting personalities and their turbulent but loving relationship are retained; it turns out sisters will always squabble, whether they’re in 19th century Massachusetts or 21st century Crouch End. Who knew?

In the programme, Rachael Claye comments that “writing eight characters’ storylines over two acts” was one of the challenges she faced in adapting the play. There is undoubtedly a lot to cover (although the opening to Act 2 fills us in on the intervening years with the same efficiency we saw at the start of the play) and the show’s running time comes in at just under three hours. That said, everything about this production is so compelling that the time really does fly; it’s a lovely piece of storytelling, and I only wish I had more time to recommend it.

Little Women concludes at The Space on 15th September (I understand tonight’s final performance is sold out but with a waiting list; you may get lucky!)


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Douglas Baker, Dante’s Divine Comedy

So It Goes Theatre return to Barons Court next month with their 21st century interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Adapted from the 700-year-old narrative poem, it’s the story of Dante’s quest to rediscover the reasons for living by reuniting with his lost childhood love Beatrice; to do this he’s taken on a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven by mysterious stranger Virgil. “Naturally there’s loads to explore: faith, morality, friendship, redemption. You name it, there’s a whole world inside this show,” says director Douglas Baker.

Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t originally set out to adapt Dante’s classic poem. “I’m embarrassed to say it was basically a complete accident,” he admits. “I had in my head an entirely different piece of source material – which I won’t go into now because it may surface in the near future. However, when I arrived at the Barons Court, I knew instantly it wouldn’t work there, so I had a mad weekend reading lots of different texts to try and find something else to do.

“I wanted something that was seriously old, out of copyright, brimming with theatrical potential. There was one particularly desperate moment where I was considering stringing all Shakespeare’s sonnets together into a narrative; thank God I found the Divine Comedy. As I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It drew me in with every passage. The pace of the thing – despite its hefty length – is incredible.”

Despite its appeal, turning Dante’s original poem into a 90-minute play for a 21st century audience came with some pretty big challenges. “I don’t want to give too much away but I think there were three big problems,” says Douglas. “Firstly, trying to create a dramatic arc in a poem that is essentially a series of meetings where the main character simply accepts what he sees as truth; structurally this is so boring and doesn’t make so much sense as a coherent story. So we’ve flipped, rearranged and cut down lots in order to – fingers crossed – make an emotionally believable journey.

“Secondly, we wanted a culture in the rehearsal room where we worked openly with only dialogue on the page. So it was a challenge to try not premeditating what I thought it would look like on stage. Even though scenes were brimming with potential, I didn’t want to lock us into something that we couldn’t achieve. So finding that balance between honouring both the text and the devising process was tricky, but hopefully we’ve made it work.

“The other main problem was trying to present medieval morality sympathetically. I quickly saw that it was impossible, so as a result we’ve had to take some liberties. Our Dante is younger and more rebellious. I thought that youthful mindset could work because we the audience are basically seeing this stuffy old fashioned world through Dante’s eyes, so we can hopefully justify the difference between the Dante in the poem and the Dante we present on stage. The story is the same, but Dante’s feelings towards it have been modernised.”

Douglas is looking forward to introducing new audiences to Dante’s work, and says prior knowledge of the Divine Comedy isn’t a must: “I would say not. Part of the attraction to the poem was the feeling that many people knew of it, but not in any real detail. There’s something incredibly exciting about introducing people to a dusty old book for the first time; perhaps our interpretation will encourage people to read it for themselves and come to their own understanding about morality or the afterlife. I hope people will see our piece as a series of questions rather than assertions. The hope is we can ignite curiosities that will push people to reach their own conclusions.”

The show returns to Barons Court for a second time following a well-received run in April. “Being back is strangely unnerving,” says Douglas. “We always forget how small the stage is, so it requires seriously precise coordination to keep things visually interesting. Luckily our movement director Matthew is a genius at utilising space in interesting ways, so your eye is always drawn correctly. Other than that it’s just been a case of balancing creating with re-creating, we don’t want to just redo the original production but rather build on it and improve.”

This latest run, which opens on 5th September, sees almost all of the seven-strong cast reprise their roles. “They are the most generous people you could ever hope to meet,” says Douglas. “The bond between performer and director can be so fragile if egos are at play. If a cast don’t trust the director they will seize up and work only for themselves. But these cast members work for each other, they are beautifully spirited people.

“As a director I often get my actors to do very weird weird things to create the spectacle for the audience, so if it’s to translate into a coherent performance where they can commit completely it’s utterly reliant upon their trust in me. I think we have that trust, so the rehearsal room is a joyful space where we can really play and find the truth in what we’re doing.”

Douglas co-founded So It Goes Theatre with producer Charles Golding. “Charlie and I created the company way back in 2011, its been on hiatus for a while because Charlie now has a family but we always knew it would be back some day,” he explains. “We wanted to do a combination of reimagining classic stories and telling brand new ones. We want to showcase new performance talents in a largely ensemble context. We were also aware that the majority of actors auditioning for us were female, so we decided very quickly to produce work that in general favoured largely female casts. Maybe it was pragmatic rather than righteous, but it’s worked for us so far.”

Book now for Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre from 5th-30th September.

Review: Crime and Punishment at Jack Studio Theatre

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Arrows & Traps have got in early with their production of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But put aside any off-putting thoughts of epic 600-page novels; this short, sharp adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus cuts straight to the heart of the story and is all over in a gripping hour and a half.

Focusing less on either the crime or the punishment, instead this adaptation gives us a disturbing insight into the mind of a murderer during the days between the two. By the time the play begins, the murder – of an elderly pawnbroker and her sister – has already been committed, and Raskolnikov (Christopher Tester) finds himself drawn into a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare with police inspector Porfiry (Stephen MacNeice), who’s convinced of his guilt. In desperation Raskolnikov turns to Sonia (Christina Baston), a virtuous young woman forced into prostitution to save her family, who offers his only chance of redemption.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Flashbacks give the audience an opportunity to piece together the events that preceded the murder, as well as the crime itself – but also demonstrate the fractured state of mind of the killer, who himself looks back in an attempt to justify his actions. In the present, Raskolnikov explains to Porfiry that he believes some crimes – including this one – are necessary for the greater good. This is the debate at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and Campbell and Columbus’ adaptation gets straight down to it, mercilessly axeing several additional characters and plotlines, without losing any of the essence of what the story’s all about.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled a brilliant new cast for this production. Stephen MacNeice is an affable Porfiry, a self-confessed “freeform” investigator whose complex relationship with the suspected murderer begins to feel more like that of father and son than detective and criminal. As Sonia, Christina Baston has a physical fragility that contrasts with the spiritual and moral strength that sustain her – before transforming in flashbacks into the hunched, sneering old pawnbroker who’s about to meet a messy end. But this is ultimately Raskolnikov’s story, and Christopher Tester is captivating as the tormented killer. Despite being a violent criminal driven by his own arrogance, he’s also charming, articulate and capable of great kindness… and so like the biblical Lazarus who’s referenced throughout the play, we desperately want to believe he has the potential for salvation.

Anyone who’s seen Arrows & Traps in action before knows that they have a signature style – but they’re also not afraid to take a risk and step into new territory. Crime and Punishment is the company’s 10th production, and in a lot of ways is quite different to anything they’ve done before, with a cast of just three actors and a running time of only 90 minutes. Yet this is also recognisably an Arrows production, not just in its strong acting performances, but in the use of contemporary music, atmospheric lighting (courtesy of Karl Swinyard) and a dreamlike quality, particularly in movement director Will Pinchin’s exquisite slow-motion murder scene. (I never thought I’d be able to describe watching two old ladies get bludgeoned with an axe as beautiful, but there we go.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

So what we really get with this production is a super-concentrated Arrows experience, stripped back to basics but bearing all the hallmarks of a company and director who know exactly what they’re doing. An intense psychological drama, the play has the entire audience holding our breath throughout, and asks some very real, and relevant, questions about the nature of crime and whether there’s actually any such thing as good and evil.

Think you know Crime and Punishment? Think again.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: John Ginman, Frankenstein

2016 is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and critically acclaimed Blackeyed Theatre are marking the occasion with a brand new adaptation of the classic horror story. The production, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, will feature Bunraku-style puppetry designed and built by Yvonne Stone, with live music composed by Ron McAllister – and sees the company reunite with John Ginman, who wrote their hugely successful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 2013.

“It’s refreshing to work again with such a talented team who have a commitment to high standards,” John explains. “Blackeyed Theatre’s work keeps evolving but the key ingredients are always the same: a passion for distinctive live theatre, strong creative leadership, a company of multi-skilled performers, and a determination to take bold, innovative live shows to audiences throughout the country.”

Frankenstein, Blackeyed Theatre

In 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley composed the first draft of Frankenstein as part of a writing competition with Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley, during a wet summer’s stay at Lake Geneva. Two centuries later, her novel continues to both fascinate and horrify readers and audiences across the world. But how can we explain this enduring popularity?

“It’s partly a matter of genre,” John suggests. “Gothic fiction has been popular with readers for more than two centuries – though it’s fair to say that Frankenstein has reached its largest audiences through its numerous stage, and later film, adaptations. In writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley has created a powerful new version of an ancient myth. Its narrative seeks unashamedly to ‘chill the blood’, which readers and audiences love. However, the story engages us even more deeply because it still poses questions that challenge us. Should we limit what scientists are allowed to research, in an age when boundaries to knowledge no longer seem to exist? And how can we ensure that we take responsibility for the discoveries we make?”

As with any classic work, adapting Frankenstein was not without its challenges: “The key challenge is to translate a 200-page novel into two hours of theatre for audiences who may or may not be familiar with the book. You have to be selective and identify what’s essential in terms of story, character, tone and themes. The bottom line is that the story has to be clear. It also has to work as theatre, and you have to achieve this with images, space, sound and rhythm, of which the spoken words are also a part. You have to remember that as you are writing.

“The other challenge is to honour the novelist’s vision. In this case I wanted to put on stage the important aspects of the novel that are often excluded in adaptations. We’ve used Robert Walton’s story as a frame to focus the whole action, which allows The Creature to tell the story from his point of view – it’s clearly important to Mary Shelley that we understand how he thinks and feels.

“It’s also wise to be aware of any shortcomings the book might have. In this case, surprisingly perhaps, the female characters have less depth than the men, and I’ve worked to give more substance to Elizabeth, in particular.”

John reflects on his previous collaboration with Blackeyed Theatre back in 2013: “Dracula confirmed my sense that you can achieve almost anything in a live show with very simple theatrical elements, and that you have to trust the skill and versatility of the performers to create the effects you need. The script is like a musical score and so really comes to life when it’s being performed. Also, I noted the hunger of audiences for powerful live theatre in venues large and small the length of the UK, and that’s been very encouraging.”

In a unique and exciting twist, the production will feature a full-size 6’4″ Bunraku-style puppet, which needs up to three people to manipulate it. It’s been designed and built by Yvonne Stone, who’s working with Blackeyed Theatre for the first time, and whose previous credits include Warhorse and His Dark Materials for the National Theatre.

What does John feel this use of puppetry adds to the play? “That will be for the audience to say! Puppets can be remarkably expressive and add more dimensions to the experience of a live show. Bunraku has a wonderful, long tradition in Japanese theatre, but we’re using its techniques here in a completely contemporary way.”

Audiences across the UK will have the opportunity to see the show as it embarks on an extensive tour later this month, taking in over 30 venues before Christmas and additional locations in the spring. “My chief hope is that the audience will enjoy a powerful two hours of theatre, something quite distinct from watching a film version, for example,” concludes John. “I also hope that they will realise there is much more to the novel than the familiar horror story about a crazed scientist.”

Frankenstein opens at Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, on 22nd September. Full tour dates and ticket info can be found on Blackeyed Theatre’s website.