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Credit: Manuel Harlan
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Jane Eyre, National Theatre – review

Pros: A stunning use of light adds to a masterful staging of the Charlotte Brontë classic.

Cons: The running time of 3 hours 15 minutes is a tad on the long side.

Pros: A stunning use of light adds to a masterful staging of the Charlotte Brontë classic. Cons: The running time of 3 hours 15 minutes is a tad on the long side. The signs looked promising: the National Theatre staging a production of Jane Eyre in association with Bristol Old Vic. Well, it had to be good, didn’t it? And so it came to pass. The inclusion of songs was, for me at least, an added novelty in this latest retelling of the school governess who falls in love with her master. The Lyttelton Theatre yet again provides a…

Summary

Rating

Excellent

An almost perfect performance loses a star only for its needless stretching of the story.

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The signs looked promising: the National Theatre staging a production of Jane Eyre in association with Bristol Old Vic. Well, it had to be good, didn’t it? And so it came to pass.

The inclusion of songs was, for me at least, an added novelty in this latest retelling of the school governess who falls in love with her master. The Lyttelton Theatre yet again provides a visually stunning backdrop with its sparse, highly effective set design. A brilliantly simple use of lighting marks important points in the story with nothing more elaborate than light bulbs on wires. This makes transitions in the plot easier to follow. There’s Jane’s childhood at Gateshead Hall, with her emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousins; her education at Lowood School, where she finds friendship but endures cruelty; her tenure as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her employer, Edward Rochester; her time with the Rivers family, during which her sincere but cold cousin, St. John Rivers, proposes to her; and the emotionally charged reunion with her beloved Rochester.

There are some deft touches that make the production stand out. Jane’s life journey, for example, is cleverly punctuated by the cast running on the spot to show the passage of time. A live band adds real edge to the production, with original music that gives the play a fresh, almost funky makeover. The cast are in superb form, and bring the story alive with style and verve. Madeline Worrell in the title role breathes new life into the character, as does Felix Hayes as the irascible Mr Rochester. Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason shows an impressive vocal range and sings with real soul on two surprising covers; Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s pop hit Crazy are both stripped down and, with a new arrangement, work amazingly well in the context of the story.

For all its qualities, the show’s running time is ultimately its undoing. It might seem trite to complain about the length of a show with such high production values, but attention will frequently slip beyond 2 hours 30 minutes. Songs are always helpful in breaking down the density of dialogue, but I do feel the show could have been shorter and all the better for it. Jane Eyre is such a well-known story, clipping certain scenes would not have significantly harmed the portrayal. We’ve all seen it as a sprawling box set on screen; I just don’t think we need to see a box set on stage.

Author: Charlotte Brontë
Adaptation: Devised by the company
Director: Sally Cookson
Music and Music Direction: Benji Bowe
Producer: National Theatre in association with Bristol Old Vic
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking Link: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/jane-eyre
Booking Until: 10 January 2016

About Brian Penn

Brian Penn
Civil Servant. Brian flirted with drama at school but artistic differences forced a painful separation. At least he knows what his motivation is. Now occupying a safe position in the audience he enjoys all kinds of theatre. He was bitten by the theatrical bug after watching a production of Tommy in his teens. Other passions include films, TV and classic rhythm and blues. He also finds time for quizzes, football and squash. A keen sports fan, his enthusiasm crashes to a halt whenever anyone mentions golf. A musical based on the life of Tiger Woods could be his greatest challenge.