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!)


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Review: Bluebird at The Space

It might be 20 years old, but Simon Stephens’ early play Bluebird could have been written yesterday – and not only because of the many very apt references to the stiflingly hot weather.

A play of two halves, the first act consists of a series of short encounters between taxi driver Jimmy and the various fares he picks up in his cab one summer night in London. As he drives them to their destination, each shares a bit of themselves with him – whether it’s bad jokes, philosophical musings or reliving a personal tragedy – and he in return reveals a little of his own story.

These short sketches are performed by a talented ensemble cast and are by turns funny, moving and intriguing; they feed, ultimately, into Jimmy’s tale, but they also stand alone as a snapshot of London in all its glorious randomness. And with more than one passenger expressing concerns about where we’re all headed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a play for 2018, not 1998.

With the majority of the action taking place in one location – Jimmy’s car – director Adam Hemming keeps things visually interesting with a stage consisting of two intersecting runways, and the audience arranged at the four corners. With each new fare, the actors move to a new location on the stage, giving us a different perspective in more ways than one, and between scenes the characters we’ve met – or are about to meet – continue on with their night.

The only other set consists of a couple of chairs and various car parts which are arranged on stage one by one; during one scene Jimmy holds a steering wheel, for another he and his passenger sit behind the car headlights or between two wing mirrors. This, it turns out, is a neat visual metaphor for the play itself; just as each new encounter provides a little more of the puzzle that is Jimmy, so all the car parts are eventually reunited for the final emotionally charged scene with Claire, his estranged wife.

As the other actors rotate around him, Jonathan Keane maintains a steady, quiet presence throughout as Jimmy. He spends most of Act 1 listening to other people’s problems, taking care of them, and establishing himself firmly in our minds as a good guy – a guy who gets people home safe and lends an ear to those who need it. But there’s just enough of an edge to the character, and Jimmy’s conversations reveal sufficient snippets of information, to allow us to hazard a guess at what’s coming – even before he meets Claire, played by Anna Doolan with a poignant mix of anger, hurt and lingering affection. Their encounter sizzles with a gripping emotional intensity, before coming to a rather abrupt end that leaves us with many unanswered questions about the story we’ve just heard.

Despite this minor frustration, however, Bluebird successfully hits the emotional mark with its portrayal of a couple taking their first tentative steps towards some kind of reconciliation, and a man navigating his own unique and bumpy road to redemption. A moving study of grief and guilt, imaginatively staged and set in a London we can all recognise, this revival is well worth a visit.

Bluebird is at The Space until 4th August.


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Review: The Castle at The Space

In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.

Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.

Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.

The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.

Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.


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