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Little Women

Anne-Marie Casey, after Louisa May Alcott

Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre

HOME, Manchester

December 8-23, 2023: 2 hrs 50 mins

Jessica Brydges (Meg), Julia Brown (Amy),  Kacey Ainsworth (Marmee), Rachael McAllister (Jo), and Meg Chaplin (Beth) in Little Women at HOME, Manchester. cr Chris Payne
Happy family: Jessica Brydges (Meg), Julia Brown (Amy), Kacey Ainsworth (Marmee), Rachael McAllister (Jo), and Meg Chaplin (Beth) in Little Women. All pics: Chris Payne

Banner showing a three and a half star review

Hot on the heels of the return visit of her acclaimed The Merchant of Venice 1936, HOME presents another revival of a Brigid Larmour production. Little Women – premiered in Pitlochry and Watford last year – is plainer and simpler, but it will delight fans of the classic work of Louisa May Alcott.

Those fans are predominantly female – judging by the the audience at the performance I saw; which is not surprising because the story has six major female characters and, in this adaptation, two men to make up the cast of eight.

It’s set in New England, beginning at the time of the American Civil War, and the six are the four daughters of “Marmee” March – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – and their wealthy, elderly, widowed relative, Aunt March. Their father is away serving as a chaplain with the Union troops, and the family has encountered hard times. So we never see dad. We do see Laurie, the family’s young neighbour and Jo’s friend from childhood, and we see his private tutor, John Brooke.

It’s all about growing up and who may marry whom, with Jo, the tomboy and later aspiring writer (based on Alcott herself), the main centre of interest. As in the novel, there is a sequence of events which gradually unfurls the characters of the four sisters from their youth, and which might have benefitted from some trimming of incident and more investment in the actors’ craft – the play overall turns out rather long, though after the interval it’s in more satisfyingly developed scenes.

But as befits a seasonal show, there are three Christmases in it, and the family sings Silent Night (they’re quite up to the minute with that, as it only reached America around the middle of the 19th century. They also sing He that is down need fear no fall, from Pilgrim’s Progress, to the tune composed for it by Vaughan Williams, which is even more impressive, since I believe it was published in 1951...

The set and costume design, by Ruari Murchison, is in-period and effective, though spare – the stage is populated with silver birch tree trunks to represent the rural setting of the first part of the story, then using lit “windows” as a backdrop to show the tall buildings of New York (though the trees remain).

Jessica Brydges as Meg, Rachael McAllister as Jo, and Meg Chaplin as Beth, all reprising their roles from last year, take on their characters’ respective qualities clearly, and Julia Brown creates her Amy as both a petulant little sister and a more feisty young woman to make the second part of the story come alive. Kacey Ainsworth is sainthood personified as Marmee, and Susan Twist (of Brookside and Corrie, as well as the recent Dr Who) has a whale of a time as the mean-minded Aunt March.

Daniel Francis-Swaby is such a charmer as Laurie that we don’t see his destiny as a possibility until it happens. And Tom Richardson, another returner from last year, is excellent value as both John Brooke and (in the second part) the German intellectual Prof Bhaer, who turns out to be the man of Jo’s true dreams.

Info and tickets here


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