Friday, November 08, 2013

Little Women at the Playhouse, Dunedin

At this point, there hasn't been any review of Stageworks' latest production, Little Women, so this may fill the gap for the time being.

This adaptation by Peter Clapham of Louisa May Alcott's popular book play is being presented at the Playhouse, Dunedin, and is directed by Liz Nisbet, who also directed two other very successful productions in recent years: A Christmas Carol, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

There have been three film versions of Little Women over the years, the most recent in 1994. All three films had strong casts, and were very popular, so the story is probably still very well-known. Certainly people I've spoken to are familiar with it, and women in particular remember reading it with fondness.  This dramatised version focuses mostly on the original book whereas the movies have included some of Good Wives, the sequel.

It concerns the March family: Mr March has gone to be an army chaplain during the American Civil War, and has left his wife (Ruth Wheeler) and four daughters at home, along with the longsuffering housekeeper, Hannah (Sandra Shaw-Bennett). The March family are struggling financially, something that their wealthy Aunt March (played with enthusiasm by Carol Kruger) delights to rub in their faces. She also attempts to use the withdrawal of her money as a threat at times, to keep the family in line. In spite of their somewhat straitened circumstances, the March women are concerned for those poorer than themselves, and attempt to help where they can.

The four daughters, Jo, the writer (played with great energy and humour by Clare Thomson), Meg (Imogen Davis), Amy (Ava Straw) and Beth (Imogen Corbett) love each other - and squabble with each other, as siblings will.  Each has her strengths, and each of them is forced during the course of the story to deal with situations that extend them in some way.  The Christian underpinnings of the story are clear, from the need to forgive even the most 'abominable' behaviours to acting sacrificially when the need arises. Marmee (as Mrs March is known) has definite Christian convictions and presents them quietly and confidently to her daughters. She is a gentle woman, yet strong enough to keep her daughters from making enemies of each other.  Her highest moment of passion - in the play at least - is when she makes an urgent trip to Washington to care for her husband, who has 'the fever' (that all-encompassing word that covers anything that laid low people at that time).  For once we see her almost losing her calm.

There are male characters in the play (Mr March himself appears only at the last minute), but they tend to be satellites in orbit around the vividly drawn females. Laurie, the shy young man from next door (played by Lyndon Katene), is seen as a 'brother' to Jo rather than a lover - Jo isn't into falling in love. Laurie is a gentleman at all times, and willing to help the family in any crisis.  His grandfather (Bert Nisbet) is a seemingly severe old man - we understand why this might be in a moving scene in the second half of the play. However, he's also willing to use his sizeable income to help the family out when necessary.  And Laurie's relatively young tutor, Mr Brooke (James Tregonning) falls in love with Meg, as well as accompanying Mrs March on her trip to Washington.

Since the play relies heavily on its female characters, it's great to see an excellent group of women in the roles. They skip the play along at a great pace, and there's never a dull moment.  In fact, while the first half was entertaining in itself, the second half, where there are more dramatic scenes, proved even more engrossing. Last night's audience was thoroughly involved in the story, with some laugh-out-loud moments, some tears, and a satisfying feeling of having seen a good play well done.

A set of photos by Ian Thomson from the dress rehearsal can be found here.

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