In this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, the heroine of the piece declares “I want passion” – a word that recurs frequently throughout the show. It also seems to encapsulate the underlying philosophy of the director, Bronagh Lagan. There is an energy and intensity about this production that dares the audience not to engage. The result is a surprisingly exhilarating experience.
The story is, of course, familiar: four sisters live with their mother in Massachusetts, their father absent as an army chaplain in the American Civil War. The lovely but insecure Meg yearns to be invited into ‘society’, gentle Beth wants to play on a beautiful piano, and little Amy wants to do everything her older sisters can do but also to have something – anything – that isn’t a hand-me-down. But at the heart of the family is Jo. Jo is a determined and ambitious young writer with a fiery temperament and defiant sense of personal independence; a young woman who is constantly made aware of the fact that she doesn’t fit in to the social mores of the time but really doesn’t care. She also has a strong sense of family responsibility and a resolve to do whatever she can to keep the family both together and solvent. These twin motivations – to find fulfilment as a famous writer and to support her family – drive the plot of the show, with some brief diversions into her sisters’ love lives and family illness.
Amie Giselle-Ward plays Jo with an entirely appropriate level of hyperactivity and stompiness. She is actually quite exhausting to watch (in a good way; I’m reminded of When Harry Met Sally – I want some of whatever she’s on.) There is a lovely moment when she and Meg are preparing to go to the Valentine’s Ball. Meg looks delicately beautiful in her cream gown and wonders what she will do if someone asks her to dance. Jo, in the meantime, strides feverishly and gracelessly around the stage, sporting a dramatic, in-your-face, bright red dress, clearly unimpressed with the whole endeavour. This is a heroine that I can get behind. Her singing completes the picture, displaying a voice that is roof-liftingly powerful.
The rest of the cast also give 100% – there is not one lacklustre moment. Especially delightful is Katie Marie-Carter as the young Amy, who pouts and flounces and captures the extremes of teenage emotion with sensitivity and comedy but no caricature.
The passion of these performances is supported by a real precision in the direction and design (by Bronagh Lagan and Nik Corrall respectively). Using every inch of the deep stage to maximum effect, two doors at the back open to reveal everything from a drawing room or ballroom to an iced-over river or a windy hilltop. This provides some lovely contrasts. In the ballroom scene, Meg and Jo meet two potential suitors – Mr Brooke and Laurie – and while Jo characteristically engages in some spikey verbal sparring with Laurie at the front of the stage, Meg and Mr Brooke are in the background, swaying gently together in an elegant dance. In a poignant later scene, we see Beth‘s final moments played out solemnly in the distance, Jo at her side, as a deep green kite sails silently above them – while Laurie and Amy leap excitedly around the front of the stage flourishing two smaller, white, bird-like kites which swirl joyfully around them. It feels like the circle of life represented in front of us.
None of this would work as well as it does without Ben M. Rogers’ exceptional lighting design which variously sharpens, softens, intensifies or focuses, enhancing our sense of time, place and mood at every moment.
This show is, of course, a musical – and the music feels like the weakest link here. The musicians and singers do a tremendous job – and Iona Holland’s choreography is effective and engaging. But I feel like I should come away with at least some recollection of a particular song or a desire to hear them again – and I don’t. The song narratives are very strong indeed – the lyrics of ‘Astonishing’ and ‘The Fire Within Me’ and ‘Small Umbrella in the Rain’, for example, are terrific. But there is no great variety in the music itself, which pales against some of the great musicals. (This impression may be exacerbated by the fact that I’m eagerly anticipating the Royal Exchange’s Guys & Dolls, in which every song is a winner.)
But this is to be picky. Hope Mill’s Little Women takes a classic, timeless (and timely) feminist tale and presents it with great passion and visual impact – even down to the cast’s final bow. It is joyous and uplifting.
“I won’t be sweet, I won’t be demure… I’ve got to know if I can be astonishing.” Stirring stuff.