Review: Jane Eyre at the National Theatre

(Disclaimer: this review was written based on the first preview earlier this month.)

How do you begin adapting a story as epic as Jane Eyre? By making it even more epic, obviously. Charlotte Brontë’s classic and much-loved novel already covers about twenty years in total, beginning when its heroine is 10 years old – but Sally Cookson’s production at the National Theatre goes one better, taking us all the way back to the start of the story. 

The opening scene reveals baby Jane’s tragic origins, as she loses first her parents and then her uncle, ultimately ending up the unhappy charge of her aunt Reed at Gateshead. And it’s here that we pick up the familiar story: a passionate and independent young girl, rejected and mistreated by almost everyone who should care for her, until she finally finds love with Mr Rochester, her brooding and brilliantly sarcastic employer. (Did I mention that Mr Rochester is one of my favourite literary leading men?) But all is not as it seems at Thornfield, and when a shocking secret is revealed, it seems Jane will once again be denied her happy ending. The story is part romance, part thriller, and full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Maggie Tagney, Felix Hayes, Laura Elphinstone, Madeleine Worrall, Simone Saunders and Craig Edwards. Credit: Manuel Harlan

This adaptation, a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic, is not for the faint-hearted (or weak-bladdered); lasting three and a half hours, it sets out to tell the story in all its detail, and with seemingly limitless energy. The company of incredibly hard-working actors must burn some serious calories, as they walk, run and climb ceaselessly all over Michael Vale’s ladder-strewn set, which resembles a big adventure playground. This constant movement is used particularly effectively in the transitions between scenes, filling in the gaps between the action, whether they last weeks, months or even years.

The play had no script when rehearsals began; it was devised by the company – so it’s no surprise that the small cast work perfectly together. A very physical piece of theatre, it feels at times more like a ballet than a play, the choreography working seamlessly with Benji Bower’s quirky choices of music. (I never would have thought a Gnarls Barkley song would work in a Victorian classic, which just goes to show what I know.) Singer Melanie Marshall stands out a mile in her glamorous red ball gown, an intense but eerily calm Bertha Mason who can wreak havoc with a single glance.

Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan
Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan

Felix Hayes’ Mr Rochester is a bit less elegant and a bit more foul-mouthed than we’re used to, but with an appealing, childlike vulnerability underneath his bushy beard. And Craig Edwards offers some much-needed light relief as a delightfully convincing Pilot the dog; any time he’s on stage the mood in the auditorium palpably lifts, and it’s hard not to watch him as he bounds around the stage. But undoubtedly the star of the show is Madeleine Worrall; she has all the impetuous passion of Jane as a child (so much so that you forget she’s a grown woman), but also the quiet, restrained emotion of the adult. Some of her best moments are when she says nothing at all, but lets her incredibly expressive face and movement do all the talking.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Madeleine Worrall (Jane)

While there’s no doubt that this is a beautiful and very artistic production, it does occasionally feel that with so much time devoted to Jane’s inner monologue (other cast members providing the conflicting voices in her mind) and the passing of time, some of the most significant events are dealt with incredibly briefly – to the point where, if you didn’t know the story, you might wonder what had just happened. (Certainly the people behind us found it necessary to spend a frustrating amount of time discussing the plot in loud whispers.) So, if you haven’t read the book, it might be worth at least Googling the story before you go, to prevent confusion (for you) and irritation (for other people).

This new production is highly original, and not at all what I expected from an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – but that’s what makes it exciting. Without the distraction of spectacular sets or special effects, it becomes a psychological study of one woman’s personal journey, in which every other character and event feels secondary to that purpose. The play may move at a gentle pace, but it’s certainly never boring, as it breathes new life into both the classic story and its inspirational central character.

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… 😉

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Marlowe Theatre

Sometimes you can’t beat a classic. As much fun as it is to see a brand new show, with little or no idea what emotions it’s going to make you feel… sometimes all you really want is to sit back, relax and enjoy a story that’s so familiar you can quote the script along with the actors.

There can’t be too many people of my generation who don’t at least have a rough idea what Dirty Dancing is all about. Boy meets girl, girl carries a watermelon, boy teaches girl to dance. Then they fall in love, boy gets fired but returns for a triumphant final scene which puts everything right with the world.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' & Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' - cTristram Kenton

It’s a total cheese-fest, but that’s why we love it. The producers of Dirty Dancing were always on to a winner by reviving the stage production, because the movie has such a die-hard following that the theatres were bound to be full. Building on that popularity, director Sarah Tipple’s Dirty Dancing is almost an exact replica of the original version; the script, costumes, routines and even some of the actors appear to have been transported straight from Kellerman’s, in the summer of 1963. There are a few additions – references to the political situation of the time, freedom rides, Martin Luther King and the Cuban Missile Crisis – which add a little substance, and minor characters Tito and Mr Schumacher are both given a bigger role. Though none of these changes is a bad thing, the show would probably go down just as well without them; the audience is there for the story they know and love, as fluffy and insubstantial as it might be.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' - cTristram Kenton

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set uses video screens to recreate the camp in the Catskills, including the iconic lake scene, and a rotating turntable, which gives the show a multi-dimensional feel and allows different stories to unfold simultaneously. In between scenes, we’re given an insight into the wholesome family fun enjoyed at Kellerman’s – sack races, piggy backs and musical chairs – in direct contrast to the far from wholesome activity going on in Johnny’s bedroom.

Leads Jessie Hart and Lewis Kirk have great chemistry; her perkiness and his intensity make for a perfect combination. Unsurprisingly, Lewis Kirk is particularly popular with the female-dominated audience; he could probably have not said a word all night and we’d all still have loved him (and his hips). Carlie Milner steps seamlessly into her stand-in role as Penny, and Georgina Castle is brilliant; her wonderfully terrible performance of Lisa’s Hula is one of the highlights of the show. Meanwhile there’s more comic relief from Kane Verrall; his Neil is much more likeable than the original character, with dance moves that are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy all the classic music we love – the only song I missed was the full version of She’s Like the Wind. Unlike most musicals, the majority of the numbers are performed by the supporting cast – Natalie Winsor and Matthew Colthart in particular deserve recognition; their performance of the final and best-known number, (I’ve Had) the Time of My Life, is incredible, and more than holds its own alongside the attention-grabbing dance routine.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' and ensemble - cTristram Kenton

Dirty Dancing is the ultimate feel-good show; you can’t help but leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a skip in your step. It’s a production that’s aware of, and revels in, the imperfections of the story, faithfully reproducing the characters and events that the audience want to see, and not making any serious attempts to change anything. And if it all starts to feel a bit like a hen party at times – well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ashamed to say that I whooped along with everyone else when Johnny said, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.

And because I know you’re all waiting for me to say it – yes, I really did have the time of my life.

All photos ©Tristram Kenton