Little women give big performances

Review by Paul Nelson

 

FOR its Christmas season, the New End Theatre's Pluto Productions is presenting the third incarnation of the play Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott.

The novel, originally published in two parts, is a broad canvas dealing with the fictional family, the Marches, all loosely based on the real life family of the author. One of four sisters, the facts of their real lives were altered not all that much by the author and its realism and consequent appeal is therefore assured.

However, there is so much happening in the two parts of the novel that it is impossible to include all of it crammed into less than two brief hours so the lover of the books will, no doubt, be disappointed that his favourite parts are either skimped or cut altogether.

Part Two of the novel, separately published as Good Wives, takes up the story after three years when Meg marries and the events in this book comprise the second half of the play.

The condensation of the books hits the story sometimes badly. For example, in spite of the fact that the book opens with its famous remark, and it occurs in the play, 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents', the festive season is hardly touched upon.

Similarly, even with an extensive cast of nine (extensive that is for such a small theatre), the omission of the gruff Mr Laurence (Laurie's grandfather) and the bond that ultimately existed between him and the timid Beth has to be sacrificed along with her piano playing talents. Mr March, home from the Civil War in Good Wives, also gets the chop and is reduced to a voice over.

It is unfortunate, as I say, that with such a broad and ambitious canvas a lot of the detail has to go. The evening therefore stands or falls by its grasp of the core of the story, that which made it tick and became so very appealing in the first place.

The adapter, Emma Reeves, has managed, no doubt with a great deal of heart-searching, to hit that core and aided by her director, Andrew Loudon, and an experienced and almost flawless cast, the initial sincerity shines through. In case any of the actors get neurotic about the word 'almost' let me assure them that only if a member of the audience has a very positive idea about the characters and how they should look, will they be disappointed.

The company has some definitive performances.

Marmee for instance has a spot on Pennsylvania accent. If I close my eyes I am listening to a friend of mine from that part of the world.

All the sisters are near perfect in their characterisations. It is so long since I read the book my own perception of the characters has dimmed, but I found all the performances more than convincing.

The gorgon-like Aunt March provides quite a deal of comedy, and with hardly a pause to change costume, the same actress is a delightfully comic Sallie Gardiner.

If I were to carp, I could have asked for more of the domestic comedy from the book. As it is when it rarely came it cracked up the house, rather because the audience was so absorbed in the sentimental side of the story that when it was used it broke through the seriousness.

The men, played by only three actors, manage to hold their corner in the face of the formidable opposition from the fairer sex.

My one complaint regarding the plot is that when Beth dies she ought to have remained dead rather than have her shade flit around the stage implying that romantic and other decisions are somehow assisted from the other side.
My beef about the staging is the sometimes unnecessary rearrangement of the boxes which comprise the set, thus holding up the action.

The production is well worth seeing, though lads of about 12 and upwards might become restless.

Little Women and Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Emma Reeves. Set and Costume Design Rachel Payne. Lighting by Patrick Evans. Music by Paul Weir. Produced by Mark Bentley. Directed by Andrew Loudon.
With Sarah Grochala (Jo), Sarah Edwardson (Meg), Diana Eskell (Amy), Nikki Leigh Scott (Beth), Lizzie Conrad (Mrs March), Paul Hampton (Laurie), Dewi Hughes (John Brooke, Ned Moffat, Aunt Carol), Ann Micklethwaite (Sallie Gardiner, Aunt March), Tim Fessler (Fred Vaughn, Frederic Bhaer).
New End Theatre Hampstead, 27 New End, NW3. 020 7794 0022.