I will start by saying, you must see Hetty Feather, it is an absolutely incredible piece of theatre, probably one of the best introductions to the power of great theatre you could give kids. For me it tops Matilda.
I’m not going to write a traditional ‘review’ as it has been running a while and the press have already given it these accolades below which I absolutely agree with. But I do want to bust some myths about it being for girls, or just for kids. It is based on the Jacqueline Wilson novel about Victorian children in a foundling hospital, which I haven’t read or seen on CBBC, but I had already compartmentalised it into a kid’s show, when it really is so much more.
I do need to try and explain what makes it so mind blowing, for my own sanity. The best theatre has this eerie ability to speak to your soul and Hetty Feather did that over and over last night, leaving me a little lost for words and for what to do with myself when we left.
When we left the theatre last night we all four – me , Mr A, my 7yo son and 9yo daughter – quickly agreed this was the best thing we have ever seen. Mr A and I weren’t just talking about theatre with kids either, this may be the best thing we have ever seen full stop. Although my theatre going over the last decade has involved a lot of kids shows, prior to that I was a Drama teacher and a Drama student, so I think I’ve seen more than average amounts of theatre. This is something else.
The combination of acrobatics, live music and a very physical style of performance creates layers which work together in the most profound ways. I started scribbling down moments when this layering moved me most, but I soon gave up there were so many, and all of them so tightly orchestrated/choreographed/directed. Hetty Feather is the slickest show I have seen in a long time, Matilda was incredible, but for me this has other layers Matilda doesn’t.
The live music is playful and haunting, the accordion and guitar conjure the Victorian world, the circus and playfulness of childhood absolutely perfectly. The circus set is incredible and I would take children to see this just to show them the amazing physical possibilities of the theatre. The ensemble cast are mindblowingly multi talented, they play so many roles and styles in one piece of theatre.
The themes of siblings and mothers really hit me in a couple of places and brought tears to my eyes. Jacqueline Wilson has always dealt with difficult subject matter, but the play, like her books, takes responsibility for guiding children (and their grown ups) through that beautifully. There is always a safety net. Her style is brilliantly suited to a Brechtian style of theatre where backstage is visible, costume changes happen on stage, the narrative flow is interrupted and society constantly questioned. Oh to be able to take my Theatre Studies A level students of the past to see this and talk about Brecht. I digress, but oh I realised how much I miss jaw droppingly great theatre.
The comedy is brilliant, much of it visual, the small ensemble cast play lots of different roles and their ability to convey wildly different emotions seems to hold no bounds. The actors playing show horses in the circus was just perfect. The comedy breaks the tension and the saddest moments perfectly too, another safety net.
When we arrived the foyer was full of 10 year old girls. Hetty’s feisty female character clearly appeals to modern girls, but this is not a play to only bring your daughter to. Apart from being incredible theatre, Hetty has male siblings and there is lots of exploration of gender stereotyping and sibling relationships which is great for girls and boys to experience. Hetty’s brother Jem is older and protective, Saul is seen as mother’s favourite and disabled, and Gideon wants to be a servant girl not a soldier. So many difficult issues are safely and sensitively dealt with, very thought provoking.
The only thing I was’t sure about, was making the audience shout like it was a Pantomine during the pre show, I don’t think Hetty was that kind of show, although I thought the musician’s pre show was hilarious and beautiful and perfectly Brechtian in other ways.
I will finish with one audience ‘participation’ that really illustrates for me what Hetty Feather is about. There is a moment when Hetty believes she has found her birth mother, at this point, my 7yo son suddenly called out a really heartfelt, “No” and hid on the floor behind the seat in front of him, muttering “Please don’t”. I realised how completely engaged he was in Hetty’s plight and that he actually couldn’t bear to watch her go through disappointment. This is the magic, when theatre really speaks to your soul and makes you feel on a deep and almost involuntary level. Where you feel you have to take action because of what is happening on stage.
That’s what I want my kids to experience at the theatre, that magic. As long as, as Hetty Feather so skilfully does, they are brought safely through the other side. The cast singing together on stage, when all has been resolved, is the most joyous, life affirming finish.
Need to know
I’m blown away by the quality and variety of shows at Theatre Royal this season, do check them out.
Hetty Feather is now touring the UK, and is definitely worth travelling for. I bet it is also incredible in the round too. Find out more here.
We were guest of Theatre Royal, opinions my own.