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Underdog: The Other Other Brontë at the Dorfman Theatre

Picture this. You’re in the Dorfman Theatre sitting minding your own business, looking at a moorland thicket on the stage and waiting for the show to start when suddenly a woman in a scarlet dress comes charging in and loudly asks random members of the audience what their favourite Brontë novel is. Terrifying if you are the person but asked, but highly amusing for the rest of us. Welcome to Sarah Gordon’s play Underdog: The Other Other Brontë.

Adele James (Emily Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë), Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë) in Underdog_ The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre (c) Isha Shah.
Adele James (Emily Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë), Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë) in Underdog_ The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre (c) Isha Shah.

The person asking the questions is Charlotte (Gemma Whelan) eldest of the three Brontë sisters and as the moorland flies skyward to hang over the action, we meet the other sister Emily (Adele James) and the other, other sister Anne (Rhiannon Clements). The three live with their brother Branwell (James Phoon) and father in a cloistered Yorkshire parsonage and are broke and fed up. They are broke because Bramwell has a drinking problem, and they are fed up because as nice Victorian women their life options are very limited. Pretty much teaching or getting married is all that they can choose. For while there may be a queen on the throne, this is the age of the patriarchy in all walks of life. The three have pretensions of being writers and as this is not something a woman can (or should) do young Anne comes up with the idea of them using pseudonyms to become three male authors – the brothers Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Or was it Anne’s idea? Was it really Charlotte’s? or did she claim it as her own because of her jealousy towards her younger sister? Questions searching for an answer.

Sometimes I feel like a literary barbarian having not read many of the classics of literature in my time at school. I had heard of the Brontë family and heard, in passing as it were, of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (thanks to Kate Bush), ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ but never really joined the dots. I knew therefore that Underdog: The Other Other Brontë was going to be a bit of an eye-opener for me in regard to the family history. I was also intrigued by an article in the Guardian recently with Natalie Ibu where she talks about comparing the Brontë sisters to the Kardashians, “I’m constantly comparing them, because they’re the ultimate disruptors – and they’re also three sisters with a brother that no one really remembers. We may not like what they stand for, but they are successful and exquisite at what they do,

The story entirely centres around Charlotte – as she would seem to want it to – and her treatment, either from jealousy or in a spirit of protection, of the youngest sister Anne. It is well known that she suppressed a second print run of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ but no-one knows why. Unfortunately, Sarah Gordon’s script doesn’t give a definitive answer as to why Charlotte acted the way she did, maybe Charlotte herself never really knew. For me though, I felt that there was an underlying fear governing everything Charlotte did. And that fear was – again my opinion – given shape in the moorland set hanging over the stage, like a metaphorical sword of Damocles, warning Charlotte that at any time the real world could drop back in, and she could be exposed as a mere woman from Yorkshire losing all the fame, respect and influence she had been given by the men in control.

Gemma Whelan. Adele James and Rhiannon Clements give great performances as Charlotte, Emily, and Anne respectively. Unfortunately, Emily feels slightly underwritten – as does Bramwell – and the emphasis is really on Charlotte and Anne and their relationship. Thanks to the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the actors, this works extremely well on the stage.

The show is fast-paced and at times very. Very funny. The three sisters are supported by a team of four men (Nick Blakeley, Adam Donaldson, Kwaku Mills and Julian Moore-Cook) playing a variety of roles and genders as the story progresses, leading to some wonderful highlights including the impressive stagecoach at the start of act II and Blakeley’s interpretation of a flouncing Mrs Gaskell.

Ultimately Underdog: The Other Other Brontë is different and in a good way. There’s a mixture of Victorian and contemporary language that works well. The first time I’ve heard a Victorian author refer to anyone as a bell-end. The revolving stage makes scene changes easy and sharp and overall, the play, which is very funny in places, raises a lot of questions about feminism, sibling rivalry, fame, and ambition (back to the Kardashians possibly). I’m not sure the story answers all of the points it raises but, to my mind, that is not its job. The play is entertaining, informative and, going by some of the conversations I heard as I was leaving, definitely starts a discussion that can go on long into the night.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Charlotte Brontë has a confession about how one sister became an idol, and the other became known as the third sister. You know the one. No, not that one. The other, other one… Anne.

This is not a story about well-behaved women.

This is a story about the power of words. It’s about sisters and sisterhood, love and jealousy, support and competition.

Directed by Northern Stage Artistic Director Natalie Ibu (The White Card), Sarah Gordon’s (The Edit) new play is an irreverent retelling of the life and legend of the Brontë sisters, and the story of the sibling power dynamics that shaped their uneven rise to fame.


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