Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Emma Reeves
It has taken a long time but this delightful adaptation of an American classic has finally made it to the West End. It sold out the New End Theatre in Hampstead on its initial showing and since then has also appeared at the Linbury Theatre in Covent Garden.
There is every chance that this feel-good production will prove a surprise Christmas hit and run for some considerable time. In part, this will be due to the selection of the Duchess Theatre, which, with its intimacy, is perfect for this tale of small-town folk. This is enhanced by director Andrew Loudon who combines a simple set, designed by Rachel Payne and featuring little beyond a number of artistically used opaque screens, some beautiful and very colourful costumes and melodic a cappella singing from the company, featuring an excellent choral quartet.
The story of the lives and loves, aspirations and battles faced by the March girls as they grow up during the American Civil War may be familiar to many. It is seen through the eyes of tomboy writer Jo, played by Sarah Grochala. She paints a convincing portrait of her three sisters: responsible, motherly Meg, precious, thoughtless Amy and shy, doomed Beth, played respectively by Sarah Edwardson, Diana Eskell and Phoebe Thomas. She also shows us how hard it is to become a writer without compromising your principles.
Some of the best moments come from the supporting actors and, in particular, Sarah Crowden is wonderful as the strict and extremely grim Aunt March, a rich woman designed to break the hearts of her impoverished nieces.
The first half of the play deals with girlhood, as the indulgent Mrs March, played by Lizzie Conrad, has to balance the egos of her four highly intelligent children with her own needs in the absence of her husband, who has become an army chaplain. When he is apparently mortally wounded and quiet, saintly Beth catches scarlet fever following a charitable act, the light, comic pleasures of childhood vanish forever.
As the girls grow up, their giggling admiration of the boys next door is replaced by their different attitudes to acquiring husbands. Meg eschews a share in Aunt March's fortune for happiness with a teacher while Amy sets her sights on making enough money by her marriage to provide for the whole family, eventually choosing Paul Hampton's Laurie, almost on behalf of the whole family. It is Jo's struggle to maintain her independence but also to find a suitable husband that is most interesting and, suitably, she does so in time for a poignantly happy ending.
The acting is almost universally good, particularly some of the comic cameos. The storyline is inevitably strong and draws the viewer into a long lost world that can still speak to us today.
The ups and downs of the March girls' lives will bring both tears and laughter to any audience. A play with this much charm deserves to be a hit and could prove a very popular family alternative to the Christmas panto.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher