Hetty Feather

Jun 2 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩    Faithful adaptation

King’s Theatre  Tue 27 – Sat 31 May 2014

The thrill of the circus and the fear of poverty bring their competing twists to this sumptuous touring production which is on its way to the Vaudeville theatre in London’s West End.

Phoebe Thomas and Nikki Warwick. Photo © Helen Maybanks

Phoebe Thomas and Nikki Warwick. Photo © Helen Maybanks

Adapted faithfully from Jacqueline Wilson’s first Hetty Feather book aimed at children aged over seven, it tells of the combative, red-haired girl placed in a Foundling Hospital by her impoverished mother when she was only a few days old.

Phoebe Thomas is terrific as Hetty. Perfectly cast with big red hair and a big attitude to match, she arrives on stage in a circus hoop, born aloft and filling the place with a distinctive, demanding voice.

Fans of the book will no doubt be delighted at the portrayal of their heroine and the bringing of Victorian London to the stage. Especially Matt Costain’s vicious Matron Bottomly – nearly always towering over the stage – who rules over the Foundling Hospital with a particularly sadistic glee.

Bottomly is just the latest in a long line of literary villains to take personal pleasure from their ability to inflict pain by withholding such basic rights as the pursuit of knowledge.

Under Sally Cookson’s direction, the whole is framed in the circus ring which dominates Hetty’s dreams. Its towering framework provides the trees which Hetty and her foster brother Jem escape into, with brilliant use of silks and trapeze tricks all round.

The circus environment helps push the production’s physicality too. Hetty’s narration is brought out with the six-strong cast all doubling up, to portray children at the Hospital and Hetty’s various foster siblings. As Hetty grows older, so their mannerisms age, too.

Such storytelling techniques are straightforward enough – if sometimes over-laboured. But this is at its best when Cookson lets rip with such events as the arrival of the circus with a wonderful elephant and the subsequent bareback riding of Nikki Warwick as the magical Madame Adeline.

At its best, this finds the truly human side of Hetty Feather, as it shorts-out the narrative and uses performance to delve right into her thoughts and fears. Live music – performed by the cast almost as much as musicians Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter – permeates the whole, adding extra layers understanding.

Where it fails – and self-indulgence is a failure – is when it is too much of a slave to the narrative. Emma Reeves’ adaptation is great, but she and Sally Cookson have not had the necessary determination to let some of the original go.

An adaptation which will thrill fans of the book, but which will not be quite so digestable to newcomers. When it does deliver, however, it delivers with style.

Running time 2 hrs 25 mins (including one interval)
Run ends Saturday 31 May
Daily, 7pm.
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tour website: www.hettyfeatherlive.com

The Hetty Feather books:

Click on the images above to purchase the books on Amazon.

Hetty Feather on tour:

Tue 27 – Sat 31 May 2014 Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Tue 3 – Sun 8 Jun 2014 Cambridge
Arts Theatre
01223 503 333 Book online
Tue 17 – Sat 21 Jun 2014 Sheffield
Crucible Theatre
0114 249 6000 Book online
Tue 5 Aug – Sat 6 Sep 2014 London
Vaudeville Theatre
0844 412 4663 Book online


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