A joyful romp in full technicolour — if you like Gifford’s circus, you’ll love NST Southampton's Christmas production.
Scratch Little Mix, Zoella, Ariana et al, Hetty Feather is the kind of role model I want for my pre-teen daughter.
NST’s stage adaptation of her rags to not-quite riches story is set in Victorian London, but my gosh it skewers contemporary issues faced by our kids: the often fraught relationship between mums and their feisty pre-teen daughters; gender roles, and why we should challenge them; and the loss of a free-ranging country childhood.
Reprising the title role after the UK tour and West End run, Phoebe Thomas lifts the production with an impish optimism as buoyant as the actors swinging across the stage, twisting and clambering through strands of hanging material, hoops and ladders to bring a 3D depth to the intimate stage.
Much more than a side show, circus arts are integral to the action. Here we have the incorrigible Ms Feather and Matt Costain’s sympathetic Jem playing squirrels in an ‘oak tree’; there Matron Bottomly looms in her aerial hoop-cum-lecturn, the very epitome of Victorian repression. Miss Trunchbull, your days are numbered.
As well as driving the narrative, all this aerial action is a wonder to behold in and of itself: from Nikki Warwick’s exotic Madame Adeline, with her naughty ‘orses, to the tender, floating dance between Hetty’s parents; my 8-year-old was entranced.
The pared back, cartoon simplicity of Katie Sykes’ design — the costume stripes in primary colours and the stage framed by ladders — all add to the sense of animated fun, as well as lending a brutal starkness to the story’s darker moments. Watching Sarah Goddard’s Ida ‘winning’ the Foundling Hospital’s fairground-like lottery, allowing her to leave the newborn Hetty with Matron Bottomly forever, is gut-wrenching.
Benjo Bower’s live music is a joy too. By referencing Oliver Twist’s iconic “Who Will Buy?” we are placed immediately in Victorian London, then swept off to rural England with original and well-known folk riffs. This is an idealised arcadia where Peg (also played by Sarah Goddard) sweeps her fostered lambkins into a fug of milk and bosomy, maternal love.
The fraught yet loving relationship between Goddard and Thomas’ mother and foster-daughter is played with impressive emotional grist. The episode where Peg paddles Hetty’s bottom with breathtaking relish, only to hold her foster daughter with fierce tenderness only minutes later may be shocking, yet it’s a scenario of extremes that many a mum of strong-willed daughters will recognise — let’s park the violent punishment though, we are in Victorian Britain after all.
Bottom-paddling not-with-standing, all this Brambly Hedge meets Cider with Rose rural frollicking soon comes to a brutal end when, aged six, the lambkin foundlings must return to industrial London and The Foundling Hospitals’ factory-line approach to child-rearing.
Let’s not forget that Hetty Feather is the brainchild of Jacqueline Wilson, an author not known for shrinking from the harsh reality faced by many children; her most famous protégé, Tracy Beaker, is raised in a care-home otherwise known as The Dumping Ground.
The production handles the grimmer aspects of Hetty’s experience with sensitivity and humour. Even so, this is not a show for really young children.
Apart from anything it is two-and-a-half hours long, but for older kids, I’d say eight-plus, it will open the door to some tough conversations: from stranger danger (hinted at by the spine-crawling music when Hetty escapes into London’s East End), to gender roles and why we should challenge them: sweet, sensitive Gideon’s constant, comic refrain that he wants “to be a servant girl” not the soldier foundling boys are expected to be, belies the grim reality of his future as canon fodder in the 19th century British Army.
So a brilliantly produced piece of theatre for older children. The bright, fun stage set, and the glorious circus performances will hold them spellbound and feels suitably festive, yet the deeper emotional content will have them (and you) thinking and talking for days afterwards.
Hetty Feather runs at NST until 7 Jan 2018. nstheatres.co.uk
Words: Muddy Hants Editor, Mary Malyon
*A quick note on parking. If going with children, especially at night, make sure you park in the spaces right by the theatre as the other carpark recommended on the website: Broadlands Road (SO17 3AT), is a reasonably long walk. I did it alone, with my 8-year-old, at 10pm and did not feel entirely safe.*