The Theatreguide.London Review
Duchess Theatre Autumn-Winter 2004.
This modest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's nineteenth-century girls' books would be completely out of its class in the West End at any other time of year. But as the family show season begins, it is an amiable and attractive choice for those with daughters who have read the book or who remember with particular fondness reading it themselves.
For those with a Y chromosome, Alcott's 1868 novel (which was followed by several sequels) recounts the mainly domestic adventures of the four teenaged March sisters - level-headed eldest Meg, tomboy Jo, frilly Beth and baby of the family Amy - while father is off in the American Civil War and mother is a loving but vaguely irrelevant presence.
Actually, 'adventures' may be too strong a word. I brought along as my expert a ten-year-old girl who had recently read the book, and she explained during the interval that many of the more mundane activities of the girls' lives - picnics, church, and the like - had been left out.
Still, what's left is not exactly Star Wars stuff. Jo gets upset when her older sister discovers the world of ball gowns and beaux, the girls are patronised by their betters and charitable to those less fortunate, Amy falls through the ice while skating but is saved, Beth gets scarlet fever but recovers.
Act One takes us through the original book and a bit beyond, and the second half of the evening picks up the story a few years later with material from a sequel.
One of the girls contracts the all-purpose Victorian Women's Wasting Disease and gets a death scene that ranks pretty high on the Little Dorrit soppiness meter, but the other three eventually find husbands and happiness.
It would be hard to imagine a less eventful and exciting evening, and neither the adaptation by Emma Reeves or the direction of Andrew Loudon does much to help it come alive.
Though Alcott individualised the girls into separate types, what survives of their characterisations is paper-thin, and staging, costuming and performances homogenise them so that they are nearly interchangeable (as are their various beaux).
I had to keep reminding myself who was who and who was being paired off with which.
In short, though this is a fully professional production, everything about it smacks of particularly good school theatricals, and if you approach it on that level, not judging it by West End standards, it is a fine choice for a family holiday outing.
My young friend enjoyed herself, and the taste of what was to come after the first book inspired her to want to go out and read the sequels - and that may be a more significant judgement than anything I have to say.
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