Even if you’ve never read any of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather series of children’s books (as I have not), you will most likely be caught up with the stage version of Hetty’s tale, now playing at Asolo Repertory Theatre in the United States premiere of this British show.
It may help if you’re a sucker, as I am, for plucky Victorian orphans overcoming the obstacles in their path to a happy ending. But while Hetty Feather follows in a long tradition of such stories (there’s even a brief nod here to a song from Oliver!), it stands on its own for its spirit and its mix of comedy, pathos and circus magic.
Yes, circus magic, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First we meet our heroine, Hetty (Chloe Mantripp), who narrates the story of her birth, her unwilling abandonment by her mother, and her young childhood in the English countryside, circa the 1870s and 1880s.
She’s aided in her telling by a small but highly adaptable cast, who portray various characters from Hetty’s mother and kindly foster mother to her fellow foster children, Gideon and Saul, beloved playmate Jem, and eventually, the strict matron and fellow inmates of the Foundling Hospital in London where Hetty is to be trained as a servant girl.
We know that sort of life is not for Hetty, though; her red hair, lively imagination and defiance of authority mark her out for something more unusual in life. And when she gets behind the scenes of a traveling circus and falls under the thrall of bareback rider Madame Adeline, we’re as eager as she is to for her to escape poverty and drudgery and to find excitement and maybe even a family.
Even before the circus appears, we’ve been treated to some high-flying action, for whether it’s tying themselves up in circus silks, hanging from the big hoop in the center of the stage, or tumbling about performing various acrobatic feats, the cast of this show is seldom still. It’s all a highly creative way of handling the story here, though, not just for show; credit to adapter Emma Reeves, director Sally Cookson and aerial director Gwen Hales for integrating all the elements in an entertaining and often touching way.
An added bonus is the music by Benji Bower (along with Luke Potter and Seamas H. Carey, who both back up the cast on the production’s songs and serve to introduce us to the whole shebang at the start of the evening). The technical demands of Hetty Feather are no doubt challenging, but in the audience you never feel you are seeing the work, only the play.
Mantripp engages us wonderfully as Hetty from the start. And while it’s hard to single out other members of the ensemble for specific roles because they all do so much, kudos to Matt Costain, Sarah Goddard, Mark Kane, Nik Howden and Nikki Warwick for filling out the population of Hetty’s world.
Hetty Feather continues through June 26, with some special performance times scheduled for families with young children. At a running time of two hours and 10 minutes, and with the sometimes harsh truths of an orphan’s life depicted here, the show is recommended for those age 7 and up.
For tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.