HETTY FEATHER at Bath Theatre Royal

Poor Hetty Feather… abandoned by her unfortunate, impoverished mother in the Foundling Hospital as a baby, she doesn’t even know her real name. Growing up as a small child with a foster family brings some happiness but she is soon returned to the austere routine of the institution. Amongst the other foundlings she is separated from her adopted brother and forced to learn darning and cleaning with the girls. Hetty is a strong-willed, spirited dreamer and finds herself consistently at loggerheads with the grim Matron. Children (and adults) who’ve read the books by the prolific author Jacqueline Wilson will be familiar with the story. And so will the rest of the audience, as it doesn’t vary too far from the traditional ‘disadvantaged child makes good’ theme from popular culture. See Annie, Cinderella and numerous fairy tales for reference. Renowned director Sally Cookson has form with this brand of narrative having done Cinderella and Jane Eyre before.

In fact, Wilson’s Hetty Feather has been described as a female Oliver Twist by other commentators. She’s a bit more feisty and certainly has more drive. These characteristics are brought out competently by lead actor Phoebe Thomas; she brings to Hetty all the charisma and charm that we would expect. Phoebe skips, swings and squeals her way through the show. She’s supported by the other members of the capable and likable cast. Matt Costain plays a suitably heartless and unsmiling Matron and the jolly foster-brother Jem. Sarah Goddard hams it up as the mother figures Ida and Peg, while the talented Nikki Warwick demonstrates her proficient circus skills as Madame Adeline. Isaac Stanmore and Mark Kane make up the acting team as the other foster-brothers Saul and Gideon. The hard-working troupe switch smartly between the minor rolls throughout the performance. Mark Kane shows off delightfully as one of Hetty’s fellow girl orphans.

Director Sally Cookson and designer Katie Sykes know how to create the visual spectacle required for this sort of piece. A circus theme resonates throughout as the acrobatic cast make use of ropes, silks and hoops to fashion the ambience of each scene and fill the stage area with their presence; they hang like characters in a tableau. Composer Benji Bower has worked with Cookson before and he fleshes out the creation with subtle and eerie music; such an important part if this show and beautifully understated. Seamas H Carey and Luke Potter are the musicians that bring the compositions to life; they also provide additional songs and material. There are no surprises in the story; Hetty is just the sort of red-haired and blue-eyed heroine that delights the young audience at this performance; her strivings for love, family and a home are common themes. For my taste the show could have used a little more of the darkness and anguish that Cookson brought to her Cinderella and Jane Eyre, but an enjoyable caper non-the less.  ★★★☆☆   Adrian Mantle   10th January 2018

 

Photo by Helen Murray