Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Theatre Review : Hetty Feather

HETTY-FEATHER-Phoebe-Thomas-Nikki-WarwickChris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Hetty Feather’ which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 12th March – and at Theatre Clwyd in Mold the following week.

I confess I am a total newcomer to the Hetty Feather phenomenon. I must have led a sheltered life…landlocked in the adventures of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’. So the warmth and humanity of Jacqueline Wilson’s story came as a lovely surprise. This time she’s applied her literary skills to Victorian England and the resultant story is a like Dickens seen from the keenness of a small child’s perspective.

Our infant heroine is born out of wedlock and placed in a Foundlings Hospital, from where she is fostered out to a family of Kentish country folk. But the sand is fast running through the cosy egg timer. For when she reaches the age of six, she must return to the institution and its stern ways. Which is a double pity because she’s clearly a circus star in the making.

Sally Cookson’s stage production is absolutely delightful and stripy costumes and circus setting on a stripped back stage draws heavily upon Hetty’s showbiz ambitions. A team of eight performers muck in to do everything together in true travelling show tradition. Pheobe Thomas as Hetty is a fiery red head with a lively imagination and fierce determination – taking the young audience firmly by the hand as she leads them through her Helter-skelter story. Pheobe is an athletic and bouncy performer with her own, real waist-length red hair. One of the best production moments is when it is theatrically shorn off for institutional life. It’s a spectacular solution to a problem that doesn’t arise in book.

The ensemble playing is fast, furious and extremely witty with the cast portraying humans and animals with real personality. We get some consistent family characters who we grow to love – and some lovely circus snapshots of a Herculean strongman with a ridiculously falsetto voice, for example, and the mysterious, red headed East European trapeze artist who is not quite what she seems.

Her horses are splendid. The humans not only play horses, they play horses with distinctly unforgettable, individual characters. Of the ensemble, it’s Sarah Goddard who shines. Not only does she morph into the various kindly woman she was clearly cast for; she doubles convincingly and ridiculously as a grumpy clown, a variety of naughty boys and a horse that is definitely ‘cart’. As with the entire cast, her body language is superbly observed.

The songs are fun too, accompanied by imaginatively scored harps, hammer dulcimers and jokey percussion – and drawing upon the traditions of folk, country, reggae and Sylvester Stallone.

Working with a decidedly living author, Emma Reeves’ re-write for the stage is necessarily respectful. The one weakness of the condensed version is the ‘procession effect’ as the episodes in Hetty’s life story follow hard on each other’s heels. A freer hand might have given the show more depth…but then if they’d left anything out, there might have been a throng of complaining kids at the stage door.

As it was, they were utterly enthralled.

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