Review – Little Women

The estimable Space Arts Centre brings us this new production of Rachael Claye’s take on the classic Little Women. Set in contemporary London the transition from the original’s backdrop of the American Civil War is highly successful. The story focusses on these four strong and individual women and their mother as they deal with the ups and downs of relationships and careers in a family without a father.

As we arrive the March sisters Meg (Isabel Crowe), Jo (Amy Gough), Beth (Miranda Horn) and Amy (Stephanie Dickson) are preparing Christmas decorations in the living room of their home. Neatly set, with the audience down either side, there’s a real sense of being in the room with them, even if at times it requires a sort of Wimbledon-style head turning to follow the action from one end to the other. But there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to engage fully with the piece.

As the sister’s develop both their work and their relationships we get to know them better and understand their wants and desires.

The men in the play are Laurie (Sean Stevenson) and his tutor, John Brooke (Joshua Stretton) and Professor Bhaer played by Jonathan Hawkins. They appear only in relation to the women but often bring tenderness and humour to proceedings in their various attempts to impress the sisters.

The direction by Sepy Baghaei is fluid and pacey. The play’s short scenes keep things moving, helped by quick and efficient placing of props by the cast. The limited lighting rig in the Space is well used by designer Andy Straw, not only highlighting the location of the action but bringing in turns warmth and chill to scenes.

The strength of both the performances and the writing is evidenced by the fact that at the time of a family tragedy the trauma and sense of loss was palpable amongst the audience in a way I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced in any theatre. We have become unexpectedly close to these people, helped significantly by being physically close to them in a way which The Space venue seems always to achieve so effortlessly. So at the end when everyone gathers round for another Christmas, the emotional impact is huge.

A real Christmas treat.

Little Women is at The Space until 15 December.

Review – The Case of the Frightened Lady

The curtain opens to reveal an imposing baronial hall. It’s reassuringly solid and large. It also tells us we’re firmly in classic murder mystery territory, with the lady of the manor (Deborah Grant as Lady Lebanon) urging staff, guests and family members on to play their part in the running of a large party. This sees us swiftly introduced to most of the large cast and creates a genuine impression that there is a ‘rest of the house’ attached to the bit we can see.

The plot concerns Lady Lebanon’s attempts to see her son and heir (Matt Barber as Lord Lebanon)safely married-off to Isla Crane (played by Scarlett Archer). Meanwhile a possible love triangle involving the housekeeper, her husband the gamekeeper and his lordship’s chauffeur provides  diversion and red herrings.

Before too long there is the inevitable (first)murder, which in turn introduces us to our leading man – John Partridge as Chief Superintendent Tanner (‘Sounds like he should be running a spa,’ quips Lady Lebanon) accompanied by Matt Lacey as his assistant, Detective Sergeant Totti. By this stage you’re wondering if these were regarded as perfectly normal names back in the 1930s or whether Edgar Wallace had his tongue firmly in his cheek. I suspect the latter because, particularly in the second act, there are delightfully bizarre moments as a running gag about two servants always suspected of listening in the wings (Angus Brown as Brook and Simon Desborough as Gilder) is increasingly played up.

That’s not to say this is a comedy. A cast of well known TV faces including Robert Duncan as Dr Amersham ensures that everything is played with conviction, each distinct character being believable in their own right. Rosie Thomson as housekeeper Mrs Tilling is particularly good.

There’s something inevitably a little pedestrian about these kind of plays, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company know how to handle the material. They don’t attempt to make it relevant to a modern audience or sensationalise the story. Instead, their approach is to provide a sumptuous set, a cast of well known faces and a few screams along the way.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10 December and then on tour for one more week at The Richmond Theatre.