Hetty feather. photo by donald cooper olp30y

Matt Costain as Jem and Phoebe Thomas as Hetty in Hetty Feather, onstage June 3-26 at Asolo Rep.

Image: Donald Cooper

For every child who ever wanted to run away to the circus, Asolo Rep’s production of Hetty Feather, opening this month, will strike a welcome chord.

The play was a hit both in London’s West End and on tour in the U.K. over the past two years. Now it’s coming to the United States with the same cast, and the U.S. premiere is right here at the Asolo. It’s a colorful, high-flying show centered on a feisty 19th-century orphan—the Hetty of the title—whose hard, often lonely life is changed when she sees an elephant from a circus that has come to town. It’s based on the first book in a series written by Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who’s also well-known in Britain for her other children’s books, especially the Tracy Beaker stories.

Wilson, interviewed by phone from Wales, admits she was not a huge circus fan growing up. “In the British circuses,” she says, “we thought we were lucky to have one or two elephants. But in the States, you really do the circus. The parades you’d have…I visited a museum of the circus in Vermont a while ago, and it was just fantastic, to see the way it used to be.”

Wilson says she was not that involved with the stage adaptation of her book, but she’s thrilled with the way it turned out. “I had met [producer] Mark Bentley,” she recalls, “and we got on so well, I sent something to him about doing Hetty. He’s the one who got people on board, like [writer] Emma Reeves, who had also done adaptations of other stories of mine for television in the U.K., director Sally Cookson, and the absolutely right actress to play Hetty—Phoebe Thomas. [At press time, Asolo Rep had announced that actress Chloe Mantripp would be playing the role of Hetty here, not Thomas.] She’s a young woman, not a child, but she has the ability to make you believe she is. She has so much grace, and she also happens to have long red hair, like Hetty’s.” 

The show, Wilson says, has a small cast, and it’s about a small circus. “But you will be amazed at the things the performers are able to do with sheer imagination and talent. I’ve gotten so close to everyone in the production, I feel like a benign godmother. It wasn’t easy to turn Hetty over to someone else; you have to trust the people you’re working with. I just turned up the first night and applauded wildly,” she says.

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Wilson says she admires Hetty’s spirit, which survives against all odds. “I wish there were more of me in her,” she says. “I was more like the girl sucking her thumb in the corner. For a foundling in Victorian times, it was no picnic. They were fostered in the country until they were 5 or 6, but then they were returned to these institutions, where people didn’t understand that children need a lot of care and love. The only options were for the girls to be servants and the boys to go into the army. Being a servant just was not going to work for Hetty. She’s got so much imagination, and she never gives up.”

As of now, there have been five Hetty Feather books published, and Wilson promises more. “She’s become such a real character to me, and she’s become so popular, I’d be a fool not to write more about her,” she says.

Hetty Feather is onstage at Asolo Rep’s Mertz Theatre June 3-26; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.

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