My previous journey into the world of Hetty Feather was in the hustle and bustle in the heart of the West End. Here, in the much calmer Churchill Theatre Bromley, the show remains as spectacular as it did in town – mind you, it did originate in the Rose Theatre Kingston, where it returns in February 2016 on this ongoing tour, so perhaps it has always been most comfortable in suburbia. The pre-show music, this time, spilled out into the bar – the relatively cramped foyers and bars of the Duke of York’s Theatre in comparison simply couldn’t have coped with a band traversing around the building. There was a palpable community spirit in the air, largely generated by musicians Seamas H. Carey and Luke Potter, who continued to supply the music for the show throughout.
I’m not entirely sure what Hetty Feather Live is – a play with music or an outright musical. Like its lead character, it is difficult to definitively categorise this production. Certainly all the elements are there for it to be classed as a musical – the soaring choruses, the choreography, even the ‘dare to dream’ theme so commonly found in musical theatre. The younger audience members couldn’t quite decide either, though one particularly clued-up primary schoolgirl concluded that it isn’t a musical, “because if it was, the CD of the songs would be on sale in the theatre.” What I can say for definite is that the show is deliberately unrealistic, as we are almost invited to join Hetty in her attempt to ‘picture’ (that is, imagine) whatever imaginative thoughts swirl in her mind as she seeks to indulge in escapism from the harsh realities of life.
Being treated to a second helping of this glorious and absorbing show – play or musical – allowed me to sit back and enjoy the performance in a slightly different light. While the narrative no longer held in me in suspense (after the West End press night I read Jacqueline Wilson’s book on which this show is based), the show still astonished me because, despite being very much a children’s story, it is remarkably both wide and deep, touching on difficult issues that affect people of any age, and handled in an appropriate manner for its target audience to fully grasp.
What I failed to cotton on to previously is that this is a show that grapples with loss and bereavement, abandonment, parental poverty, physical violence and broken promises. And yet this is a show that children are bringing their parents along to see (or, at least, it felt that way round). It’s borderline impossible not to feel for Hetty (Phoebe Thomas), Gideon (Mark Kane) and their ‘mother’ (for which read ‘carer’) Peg (Sarah Goddard). The show is set in in the years leading up to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and at the time, though arrangements were made for infants to be looked after in the countryside, children entering care remained the ‘property’ of the institution that accepted them in the first place. So ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ was only a temporary solution. Except Hetty and Gideon weren’t told this until their time in the place they came to know as home was almost up. The depiction of institutionalised life is a deeply unpleasant one, as though lifted straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
The staging is remarkably simple, but nonetheless allows for some incredible movement. The acrobatics from Nikki Warwick’s Madame Adeline and Matt Costain’s Jem (a name for an older child that couldn’t fail to make me think of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird) are especially noteworthy. Thomas’ Hetty is mesmerising, singing and swinging and beaming whenever the occasion demanded it. Hetty’s rebellious streak is rather enjoyable, though, as it is often with good intentions.
In its treatment of its largely very young audience as people capable of handling the extremes of happiness and despair, and everything else in between, Hetty Feather is a triumph. Perfectly balanced, the drama is sometimes playful, and often tense and uneasy, but never quite so frightening that the little ones in the audience ever burst into tears. The few that did, I assure you, cried tears of joy.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Roll up and join Hetty on her escape from the Foundling Hospital. Tremble as she faces Matron Stinking Bottomly. Thrill as she discovers the squirrel house and Tanglefields Travelling Circus. Gasp as she endures a night locked in the attic. Quake as she braves the scary streets of Victorian London and cheer as she overcomes all in the search to find her real mother and a true family of her own!
From best-selling author Jacqueline Wilson, the tale of plucky Hetty Feather is brought thrillingly to life on stage by award winning script writer Emma Reeves (cBBc’s The Story of Tracy Beaker) and the Olivier Award Nominated director Sally Cookson, whose many five star productions include Peter Pan, We’re Going on a Bearhunt and Stick Man. With an original musical score by Benji Bower, circus skills and a huge heart, Hetty Feather is a terrific adventure story!
Recommended Age: 7+
Running time: 2hr 15