Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – until 7 January 2018
Guest reviewer: Soraya Scrivener
Olivier Award-nominated West End sensation Hetty Feather has hit Southampton for the Christmas period in its 2nd UK tour. It’s author Jacqueline Wilson is well-known for creating Tracy Beaker and her Hetty Feather books are hugely popular. This follows the adventures of Hetty Feather, a spirited, imaginative, mischievous, Victorian girl. Abandoned at the Founding Hospital as a baby, fostered until she’s 5, mesmerized by a travelling Circus and intent on finding her real mother she is then sent back to the Foundling Hospital to be schooled.
Emma Reeves has adapted the book magnificently well for the stage. I was sad to see it misses out the character of Hetty’s friend, Polly but I guess it would have made the show too long and emotional. I invited Grace, my friend’s 9-year old to join me. She hadn’t read the book and it didn’t seem to matter a jot as she found it easy to follow and enjoyed the show just as much as I did.
We were delighted that the scene was set as soon as we walked into the Nuffield Theatre’s Café Bar where there were lights and ribbon strung up in Circus tent fashion. The two musicians, Luke Potter on acoustic guitar and Seamas H Carey on accordion treated us to a pre-show warm up. I particularly liked their jolly ode to Jacqueline Wilson. It was lovely to see the auditorium full and the audience clapping along.
Phoebe Thomas is perfectly cast as Hetty, brimming with energy. Matt Costain (also Associate Director), Sarah Goddard, Mark Kane, Nikki Warwick and Isaac Stanmore make up the rest of this dynamic ensemble. They impressively play multiple characters around Hetty throughout the show. They fly from character to character with a quick and clever change of a piece of clothing or prop. Our imaginations were enhanced by the ingenious use of props, such as the huge tubing and fans for the elephant. The six performers told the story delightfully, with the inventive, ever-changing use of set consisting of ropes, ladders, planks, aerial silks and a hoop. Designer Katie Sykes must be commended for this.
Director, Sally Cookson has created a wonderfully busy show using creative stylised movements throughout. The train journey scene was particularly effective. Composer, Benji Bower, along with additional compositions from Carey and Potter have created original songs with a folk and gypsy feel and simple lyrics. They created smooth transitions, so scenes ran into one another. The percussion sound effects also enhanced the rollercoaster moods of the story from heartbreak to joy to just plain silly.
Grace especially enjoyed Hetty reading the gruesome police gazette to the girls in the dorm. She also loved the scene when Hetty joins Madame Adeline (Nikki Warwick) in the circus, swinging from and through the hoop as the others are entertaining horses. During the curtain call Grace asked me if all the cast were there. She was pleasantly surprised when I said yes. One thing we both expected more from was the circus skills. We weren’t expecting Cirque Du Soleil of course. They all climbed a great deal and did a few tricks, but we felt this element lacked the wow factor. The aerial silk scene at the end also didn’t seem to live up to the ‘spectacular circus skills’ the show details promised.
Advertised as suitable for 7+, I was a little disappointed to see and hear some younger members in the audience. Little ones will have difficulty understanding the context and the emotional moments were at times ruined by their murmurs especially in act two when they were getting tired.
This is clever staging of a wonderful story. A great alternative to panto this season.