REVIEW: Hetty Feather (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Sunday, August 2)

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To misquote Polonius you need go no further than Brighton this week to find the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, aerial, acrobatical, moral, meta-theatrical, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or entertainment unlimited.

The award-winning stage version of Jacqueline Wilson’s best-selling book Hetty Feather is loaded with energy, skill, great storytelling, and a dose of good old-fashioned sentimentality in a show that’s mature enough to please the adults and magical enough to satisfy the youngsters.

An extraordinarily talented group of six actors and two musicians use the most basic of props on a wonderful set by Katie Sykes that switches from bleak Victorian foundling hospital to colourful circus tent and from the squirrel house to the busy streets of London effortlessly. There’s an elephant – brought to life simply by using two large fans and a length of air conditioning tube – and even a recalcitrant horse making its mark on stage in quite the wrong way.

The secret of this production – directed with finesse by Sally Cookson and lovingly adapted by Emma Reeves (who has penned several of the Tracy Beaker stories on TV, so surely knows Jacqueline Wilson’s mind better than most) – is pretty much what the book is all about in the first place: the liberation given by full use of the imagination and the uplifting power of creativity and eccentricity.

The many children in the first night audience sat transfixed through nearly two and a half hours, tittering at the funny bits, marvelling at the clever bits, and hushed and dewy-eyed at the emotional bits. It’s wonderful to think of young people perhaps visiting the theatre for the first time being hooked forever by the imaginative possibilities memorable performing arts such as this allow.

In the title role Phoebe Thomas is every bit as feisty as the hot-headed red-haired heroine, an orphan in search of her mother, growing up against a backdrop of a kind foster family, a strict school and a sense of adventure. Impish and imaginative, she wins everyone over with her sense of justice and desire to belong, and her determination to reach for her dreams.

The rest of the cast inhabit a number of very different roles, conjuring up a host of colourful characters and giving them life and form. Full praise indeed to Matt Costain , Sarah Goddard, Mark Kane, Nik Howden, Nikki Warwick and genial musicians Seamas H Carey and Luke Potter for giving Jacqueline Wilson’s gloriously written characters such depth, variety and believability.

While there is a distinct contemporary feel to the narrative, the setting is clearly in the second half of the 19th Century and at times there is something almost Dickensian about it all – which one scene refers to with a twinkle in its eye. In many ways Hetty is a flame-haired Oliver Twist, with added spirit and plucky independence.

In addition to the swift costume changes – allowing the company to recreate such well-drawn and colourful characters as Matron Stinking Bottomly, the fierce school head; Madame Adeline, the larger than life circus performer; Ida, the kind kitchen maid; and Gideon, Hetty’s foster brother, who is determined to be a servant girl – there is plenty of awesome and breathtaking aerial choreography using ropes and silks, beautifully directed by Gwen Hales.

The musicians also have fun with an enchanting and atmospheric score, composed by Benji Bower.

This is an impressive show with a big heart, telling a compelling story with important issues along the way in a manner that captures the essence of the book while adding its own mix of breezy spectacle. We can only hope the company gets to tackle at least some of the remaining four books in the popular series.

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