Dragged up an unwanted infant to become a youngster displaying all the usual tantrums, the latest co-production between the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic certainly gives a different slant on the much-loved Charlotte Brontë story of Jane Eyre which opened in Milton Keynes last night (Monday) for a week long run.
A glitzy period drama this isn't, for Sally Cookson has revamped Brontë's sorrowful tale of orphan Jane who is faced with all manner of trials and tribulations before she arrives at Mr Rochester's Thornfield Hall where a mad women resides in the attic.
The cast of just seven actors is swelled by three on-stage musicians for some of the scenes with disease and illness rife among the poverty stricken poor. But forget any film and television adaptations you may have seen, for this classic tale displays so much physical action that if its actors wore Fitbits they'd all probably clock up thousands of steps at each performance!
Nadia Clifford plays the feisty Jane who wails loudly at her own birth in the opening sequence before she grows to become a determined, young head-strong north country lass, Manchester-born Nadia clearly making the role her own.
She faces everything head on, from the time she is sent from her foster home as a vulnerable ten-year-old to become a school boarder at Lowood Institute. And after that she becomes a governess before following her heart to finally end up with the man she loves.
Meanwhile the bearded Tim Delap makes his National Theatre debut as rich Thornfield Hall owner Edward Rochester and he doesn't disappoint. With a powerful voice and plenty of stage presence he tries desperately to keep his secret hidden from Jane who he appoints as a governess to his French ward Adele – but that only follows their first clumsy meeting when Jane unseats him from his horse.
Melanie Marshall plays 'mad woman' Bertha Mason which is not actually a speaking part. However she possesses a stunning operatic voice and performs several songs – 'Mad About The Boy and 'Crazy' being the best known – which are scattered throughout what is a lengthy three hour 15 minute production. Bertha's only 'acting' part is to attack her brother before setting fire to Rochester's bed and then going on to destroy his Thornfield Hall home.
Hannah Bristow is Jane's friend Helen Burns while she also has the role of the squeaky voiced Adele. Add that to being mad woman Bertha's secretive nursemaid Grace Poole along with playing Diane Rivers and Abbot. It all means that Hannah, like the rest of the cast, has a rather busy evening!
Meanwhile Paul Mundell adds comedy as the Lowood Institute school principal, the top hat-wearing Mr Brocklehurst as well as playing Rochester's faithful and adorable dog 'Pilot' with its strange wagging tail. He also plays the part of Richard Mason, brother of the mad woman in the attic.
Then there's Evelyn Miller. She is the maid Bessie besides being Mr Rochester's fiancee Blanche Ingram who is brushed aside when he admits his love for Jane. Evelyn also changes sex to become the Reverend St John who also wishes to marry Jane and to take her to India as a missionary… but that's only after our heroine leaves Thornfield Hall having learned on her own wedding day that Rochester still has a living wife.
Lynda Rook is Thornfield's jovial housekeeper Mrs Fairfax as well playing Mrs Reed while musicians David Ridley, Alex Heane and Matthew Churcher become schoolgirls – even though they have beards! – along with crowd scene extras while one is even a clergyman.
I particularly liked the human stagecoach arrangement as the actors were grouped together in a trotting formation before they grind to a halt for a 'comfort break'
Scenery and props are kept to a minimum while the stage itself takes on the look of a building site. Ladders are propped up against raised platforms and decking while symbolism is created with drop down lamps and window frames which together with some clever overhead lighting, adds dramatic effect.
Unfortunately some dialogue was lost thanks to the volume of the music while seeing actors get up and walk off stage after supposedly dying seemed a little clumsy.
Musically I was left rather confused for it all seemed rather disjointed and it added little to the storyline. In fact I simply couldn't see that there was any need for music at all, apart from the pre-recorded stuff which brought us rain and thunder. Also seeing actors dashing around the stage willy nilly and running up and down ladders, had director Ms Cookson taken an eraser to her script, then she could easily have trimmed Jane Eyre down to a little over two hours instead of three.
Jane Eyre plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday nightly at 7.15pm while there are matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (7p per minute, booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes