Review: The Full Brontë at The Space

The life and works of the Brontës have been the traffic of many a stage over the years – but I suspect never quite like this. Scary Little Girls’ two-hander “literary cabaret” The Full Brontë is a joyously chaotic homage to the famous writing family, which features song, dance, storytelling, Kate Bush, Black Lace, a “ukelady”, quite a bit of audience participation and several packets of crisps.

The show is hosted by “actor-manager” Maria (Rebecca Mordan) and her amiable, much put-upon assistant Brannie (Sharon Andrew), who does everything else – music, props, wardrobe, stage management… you get the idea. It quickly transpires that what was supposed to be a celebration of the Brontës is in reality intended as a celebration of Maria’s great artistic talent – or at least it would be if Brannie didn’t keep stealing all the best lines and showing her boss up with a more in-depth knowledge of the Brontë family history. Somewhat predictably, though Maria casts herself as the star, Brannie quietly – and quickly – wins us over, so it’s no surprise that in any moment of conflict between the two, the audience always sides with her.

It’s also no particular surprise that despite the title, there’s not actually much about the Brontës in the show. References to their novels and poetry are sketchy at best, often straying on to other topics including (of course) a couple of awkwardly shoehorned jokes about Brexit and Trump. Even the extended scenes based on the Brontës’ two best-known novels – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – reveal far more about the tense partnership between Maria and Brannie than they do about the literary works that inspired them.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however (although anyone going along to actually try and learn something about the Brontës might disagree), and the comedic talents of Rebecca Mordan and Sharon Andrew more than compensate for the show’s lack of literary substance. Both audience and actors are kept on our toes by the threat/promise that most of us will be “used” at some point during the evening, and it’s often these improvised exchanges with audience members – when neither party quite knows what might happen next – that get the biggest laughs.

The Full Brontë is without doubt a very silly, chaotic 80 minutes, during which you’ll learn next to nothing about the Brontës (except that they may or may not have been Cornish…?) and may well come out a bit more confused and considerably more flustered than when you went in. But even so, it’s hard not to be charmed by this thoroughly entertaining comedy duo, and for an evening of good-natured fun, the show is well worth a visit.

The Full Brontë is at The Space until 3rd November.

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Review: Brontë at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Start a conversation about English literature with just about anyone, and it probably won’t be too long before you arrive at the Brontë sisters. Best known as the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte, Emily and Anne are part of our national heritage, and yet most of us know far more about the lives of their characters than we do about the authors themselves. Polly Teale’s 2005 play Brontë aims to correct the balance, allowing us a glimpse into the remote rural life of the three sisters, and the complex family relationships that inspired the classic creations we know so well.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

And it turns out there’s more than enough material here for a story all of its own. The personal and professional rivalry between Charlotte and Emily (in keeping with history, poor Anne doesn’t really get much of a look-in, and is relegated to the role of peacekeeper); the declining fortunes and eventual disgrace of their brother Branwell; the struggle to succeed as writers in a man’s world, and the sisters’ very different motivations for writing in the first place… There’s a lot to cover, and the play does so in a series of short scenes, jumping backwards and forwards in time from childhood to adulthood, and returning to somewhere in between. Each of these scenes is introduced by a change of lighting (effectively managed by Adam Taylor) and a burst of recorded string music, wherein lies my only real complaint about Tower Theatre’s production – after countless scene changes, the music does start to grate just a little bit.

That small gripe aside, the production, directed by Simona Hughes, is of the highest quality. The cast give compelling performances, in particular Joanna Nevin as the sensitive, publicity-shy Emily, and Tania Haq, who becomes more and more dishevelled as she brings to life two iconic characters – Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Bertha from Jane Eyre. The two male members of the cast also take on multiple roles with skill, and it’s here we begin to see the parallels between fiction and reality woven into Teale’s script, as the girls’ father (Martin South), whose love and approval Charlotte craves, morphs into Mr Rochester and her adored tutor Constantin Héger, while the increasingly abusive Branwell (Paul Willcocks) turns before our eyes into Heathcliff and the drunkard Arthur Huntingdon.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

What’s most impressive about the production, though, is the way it recreates the isolation of the Brontës’ home on the moors. With the exception of the local curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, we never see anyone from outside the family enter the house… and nor do we leave it until very late in the play (and then only briefly). Colin Guthrie’s sound design brings the countryside to life around us, as rain pours, birds cry and wind blows. And as the sisters repeat the same tasks, day in day out – folding laundry, baking bread and caring for their elderly father, all whilst knowing that the world expects nothing more of them because they’re only women – we get a sense of the stifling atmosphere that led them to find their escape through writing.

Brontë is a fascinating true life story that puts a human face on three literary legends, and makes you want to go back and read all the novels again to look for clues you might have missed the first time. Part documentary, part drama, it touches on gender issues, family relationships and the human need to be known and admired, to leave our mark on the world even long after we’re gone.

Much like the Brontë sisters’ famous novels, it’s not a particularly cheerful tale – but then as we all know, that doesn’t necessarily prevent a story from becoming a classic.

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