A quick review this one, as I’m desperate to let you know about this fantastic National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic collaboration that I saw last night at Aylesbury Waterside before it moves away next week.
Firstly, if you’re short of reading time, let me simply say – go see it. This rendering of Charlotte Bronte’s literary classic takes on the gargantuan task of telling her story from birth to adulthood, and does so with an inventiveness I haven’t seen at the theatre since The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime burst onto the stage in 2013.
This production was originally a four hour epic in two parts (you could see it on separate days if you so wished), but over time an hour has been shaved off to create a more manageable and dramatic evening of theatre. There are few plays I’m willing to sit still 3 hours for, but I’d honestly go and see this again in a flash.
What was so brilliant? ‘Everything’ isn’t very helpful, is it? OK, the staging is strikingly simple – a series of ramps, stairs and ladders, alcoves and platforms in wood and metal that act as stately home, orphanage and the outdoors. Several of the actors double up as musicians (or possibly it’s the other way around -they were so good at both maybe it doesn’t matter) so there is a jazzy, melancholy score playing behind much of the play. Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, is played by Melanie Marshall, who won a scholarship to sing at the Royal College of Music and doesn’t it show, with her soulful, deep renditions of Noel Coward’s Mad About The Boy (yes, you read that right) as Jane realises her feelings for Rochester, or even more surprising, a pared back, spine-tingling version of Crazy by CeeLo Green as she sings about herself and but also looks at Jane – who’s the more crazy?
With such a simple stage, tricks have to be pulled out of hats, and so the cast double, triple, quadruple their roles, creating new characters with a hat added here, an apron tied there. The male musicians become orphan children in tied caps and dresses; Hannah Bristow, who plays Helen Burns also turns out as Adele, Diana Rivers, Grace Poole and Abbot. It works brilliantly.
Most impressive for me is the direction – real fire shoots up as Rochester’s pile burns, the red room where Jane is imprisoned for the night whooshes into a deep dangerous crimson; the cast create windows from a series of frames they hold that can be pushed dramatically away by Jane, almost as if an explosion as she tries to reach for freedom; and Jane’s doubts are expressed to four actors who answer her as her inner voice.
If it sounds intense, well, it is (come on people, it’s Jane Eyre!) but there are moments of gorgeous comedy, with Paul Mundell doing a great job of comically wagging the tail as Rochester’s dog Pilot who spends half his time panting and the other half having his tummy tickled. Nadia Clifford as Jane Eyre, though from her CV relatively short into her career, was powerful at Jane. Her anguish, almost doubling her over in pain at times, too intense to even reveal a sound, was immensely moving. And there was a real connection with Tim Delap as Rochester, who played Rochester with charisma and pathos.
If I were to criticise the play, I think that the intensity dropped off in the second half for a little while and my mind wandered slightly but actually I was very tired before I went to the theatre, so three hours concentrating was always going to be a big ask. Overall this is a tiny gripe, I really thought it was an amazing production.
Once Jane Eyre leaves Aylesbury after the Saturday night performance, it heads to York, Woking, Glasgow and Richmond before coming back into catchment in Milton Keynes in July, then finally to Brighton in late July. So here’s your chance to see a total theatrical triumph, I hope you get to see it.