William Archer for Bob & Co/Kenny Wax in association with Novel Theatre: a Rose Theatre Kingston Production
I am certain many of us wish Jacqueline Wilson (former Children’s Laureate) had been writing when we were young: her books subtly yet astutely address modern topics—friendship, parents, bullying, eating disorders, being different (which is ok, by the way).
Director Sally Cookson and her team have done a fine job with Hetty Feather—the first in the Hetty trilogy and the first Wilson book to be adapted for the stage.
Seemingly abandoned by her birth mother, Hetty is raised by a loving foster family along with foster siblings Saul and Gideon—all of whom, at around age five, must go to the legendary Foundling Hospital from whence, at fourteen, girls will become maids and boys will be soldiers.
Through Hetty’s narrative, we learn of the harsh yet protective life for foundlings in Victorian England. In true heroic style, Hetty rages against things with a fieriness encapsulated in her red hair, the possession of which is made into a positive and coveted feature (as it should be).
Katie Sykes (designer) has kept staging simple so the production can tour and adapt to smaller theatres. Accordingly, there is no set-change and we remain in the realm of the circus—a major motif in the book.
It is a surprise initially to find adults voicing babies and personating children (and all other roles—major, minor, and animal: actors as plumed and prancy circus horses was a delight and the evening’s highlight). But imagination—‘picturing’—is key to Wilson’s style and it soon became easy to accept this talented cast of six in multiple guises.
Flame-haired Phoebe Thomas embodies Hetty’s indomitable spirit as a little girl who is not perfect—is often naughty—but has a good heart and is stoical in finding her real mother. Clever casting against type means we accept nimble Matt Costain as the book’s pillowy Matron Bottomly, and tall Paul Mundell’s sweet little Gideon (a really charming performance).
Sarah Goddard is lovely as Hetty’s foster mum Peg and as Ida, the maid with a wonderful secret. Issac Stanmore brings pathos to the lame Saul (and is a particularly funny horse) and Nikki Warwick’s Madame Adeline captures the glamour/sadness of the circus performer.
Benji Bower’s delightful music/score is made inclusive through the on-stage presence of musicians and musical collaborators Alex Heane and Luke Potter.
The core audience is children aged nine to eleven but there is no age-limit to picturing: Wilson’s fan-base is wide and no one need feel excluded. The show is dialogue-heavy for children under seven and Hetty’s character may appeal to girls more than boys of, say, eleven.
Emma Reeves adapts nearly 400 pages into two hours with a 20-minute interval on top and fans may note the reduction/absence of some characters (less Jem, no Polly). But cuts introduce young audiences to the fact that literature and theatre are different art forms.
As Audrey (aged eleven) pointed out, the book’s spirit is very much alive.
Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler