Can a classic of the gothic romance genre be reinvented successfully as a piece of musical theatre? If the answer is ‘yes’, then sadly this production is not it.
For those yet to be acquainted with the tale, our heroine is young Jane Eyre, an orphan whom we find living with her wicked step-family, promptly expelled to the grim austerity of Victorian boarding school. We follow adult Jane as she makes her way as a governess, finding work and friendship in the country home of the handsome, brooding Mr Rochester, a mercurial aristocrat with a dark secret lurking in the heart of his mansion...
After a delayed start, we were introduced to what promised to be a dark musical phantasia. Sadly, this was not to be, as the production’s first act was then plagued by a series of technical mishaps. The pre-recorded music was blasted into the auditorium; the actors’ microphones cut out mid-speech (leaving the stage empty while these problems were resolved); backdrops came into collision with the props department; and too much smoke caused coughing fits and often obscured the action on stage.
Similarly, the narrative was not enhanced by its structure, which attempts to tell the story in a linear way and thus is nearly 3 hours long (including intermission). The first act worked well enough, technical mishaps aside. As we rolled into the second act, we seemed to be heading for a punchy conclusion. However, just as the play should have reached its denouement, we were introduced to a slew of new characters we were supposed to identify with. This may be true to the structure of the novel, but for a theatrical audience who had already had their patience tested, I’m afraid this was a bridge too far.
Perhaps the most potent argument against telling the story in the musical form is that most of the songs didn’t seem to add anything to narrative; merely repeating spoken dialogue, but with added embellishments. As such, they neither advanced the plot nor told us anything new about the characters. As the backdrops indicate, however, this is Jane Eyre as Walt Disney might have imagined it.
However, once the rolling fog had cleared from the moors, we were left with a good-natured cast who exuded positive energy and admirable dedication. As the younger Jane, Lauren Brindle had a beautifully clear vocal quality. Her relationship with Helen (Georgia Chadwick), Jane’s doomed childhood friend, was the most enchanting of the show. Chadwick herself bring an almost angelic clarity and softness for such a young performer; and Janet Cowley multi-roles between characters with style and dexterity. Although miscast as Mr Rochester, David Thomas gives a suitably powerful vocal performance that keeps the show on the road.
Frankly, the play would have done better to abandon the smoke, the microphones, and the Christmas panto set-design, and to simply focus on letting the actors bring the story to life. For it is the cast who hold the show together, and the clear love for musical theatre on display here helps win the audience over. As an example of musical theatre, then, Jane Eyre has a lot of heart, but unfortunately suffers from an identity crisis.
Reviewer: Amanda Hodgson
Reviewed: 4th October 2017
North West End Rating: ★★