Little Women – Review – East Riding Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, December 2019
Timing is everything, so the saying goes, and director Jake Smith and writer Laura Turner got it spot on with this year’s Christmas production at the East Riding Theatre in Beverley. With a big-screen version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women about to hit the cinemas, those lucky enough to get a ticket to the ERT have been treated to a wonderful and delicate adaptation of the ever-popular novel.
Smith has form at the ERT, having crafted Goodnight Mister Tom last year and the unforgettable It’s A Wonderful Life in 2017, adding to the theatre’s reputation for staging productions that bit different at Christmas, rather than treading the same ground as many others. Add in a host of outstanding performances from the eight-strong cast, many of whom are familiar to regular ERT audiences, and the creative team have hit upon another winner.
“Pulls on the heartstrings”
The story starts and ends at Christmas, but that’s about where the festive link ends, and at times this isn’t an easy or safe watch. There are strands of genuine emotion throughout, but the all-important balance is right. It doesn’t spill over into sentimentality or mawkishness, but it certainly pulls on the heartstrings, especially during the second half as the Little Women grow up and go their separate ways.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it is set during the American Civil War more than 150 years ago, and focuses on the female members of the March family – sisters Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth – and their mother, with their father away on service. There’s a huge amount of source material to pack into this two-hour stage production, and some of the novel’s major plotlines are skimmed over or omitted, but it’s as faithful as it can be, given the obvious restraints of time and space.
Before I move onto the merits of the various cast members, special mention must go to Ed Ullyart, who has been responsible for all of the ERT’s six Christmas set designs, and is an absolute genius at making the most of the small space in which he has to work.
The opening introduces the March girls as they giddily look forward to Christmas, with their ever-patient Marmee trying to keep them in check, but the sense of upheaval is never far from their minds, and they must make their way in the world without their absent father. The individual character traits of the four Little Women are gradually teased out in subtle, yet beautifully believable performances by Evie Guttridge (Amy), Louise Willoughby (Beth), Laura Peterson (Jo) and Laura Mould (Meg) – all boasting very decent American accents as well, it must be noted. Had any of the quartet gone over the top and made them into caricatures, the production would have greatly suffered, but all four delivered nuance and emotion in spades.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the character of Jo largely drives the story, as she tries to keep her fiery temper and frustrations in check, while also dealing with her feelings for neighbour Laurie, played pitch-perfectly by Michael Kinsey. While Meg gets the seemingly rough deal of being the eldest and almost replacing her father in the household, Beth maintains peace between the four, and Amy as the youngest gets most of the funniest lines, delivered with excellent comic timing by Guttridge.
While their father’s absence and Beth’s worrying health are constant undercurrents, the first half is largely upbeat, but the same cannot be said for the second. In fact, judging by the amount of sniffling and eye-dabbing going on around us, there’s no doubting the ability of Laura Turner to pull on the heartstrings with this adaptation, and of the actors to portray the challenges of the tragic situation that unfolds. As the plot moves on, the Little Women diverge from a close-knit family unit into disparate strands, making their own decisions in life and their own way in the world, before finally gathering once again for Christmas.
There’s a fine line to be negotiated with such, at times, dark material, especially at this time of year, and that’s what ultimately makes this such a special production. The blend of Smith’s direction and imagination, and the collective talent of the eight actors involved, make this a Christmas treat with a difference. And one that you might just still be lucky enough to find a ticket for.
images: Gavin Prest Photography