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.


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: 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… 😉