Thursday, August 18

Little Women – Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Cor Blimey, Guv, bit of a turn up for the book – because this is a long way from the beloved quintessential American novel set in the Civil War, and a different time: Chester (OK, appropriately enough) during the Great War. But girls will be girls, and the story of the four sisters is still recognizable, and they certainly are, as portrayed by such brilliant actresses. And apologies, by the way; Londoners barely get a word in; the predominant accent is Liverpudlian.

That said, still perplexed as to why John Brooke (Oliver Nazareth Aston, as extraordinary as his name) was a postman rather than Laurie’s tutor, except that letters are more important than ever in times of war. And of course, it is extremely sad in parts, but again, not quite sure about all the comic touches; an annoying bee puppet missed the mark for me, although Samantha McIlwaine was superbly hilarious as the dreadfully snooty Sally. And merging part of Little Men with the women by introducing Mr Bahaer was quite inspired in the updated setting, although via a somewhat contrived and confusing flashback where other than Amy, the sisters played assorted students. Here, he is the teacher who causes her to be humiliated when found out for smuggling peppermints into the classroom (pickled limes in the original, whatever they are).

As usual, there is plenty of musical accompaniment – well, the piano does have a key role. And dancing too, with a couple of party scenes which serve to emphasise the effect of class issues on the March family (others such as sexism and racism also come under fire). The second one is an innovation, of sorts, where Meg actually ends up tipsy and has to be rescued by Laurie, although the main point seems to be to emphasise that toffs are generally obnoxious, the irony being that two of them are played by women…

Photo: Mark McNulty

The setting is largely a domestic interior of books and toys, and battered suitcases, opening up to represent the scholarly and societal, but surprisingly, since Mrs March is the hub of the household, she does not immediately put in an appearance, though Alice Keedwell is as affectionate, sensible and serene as you imagine Marmee to be. However, if you have always pictured a dashing and charming Laurie, Samuel Awoyo seems a bit too diffident if, conversely, more confident later on as a soldier dealing with shell shock. In another interesting twist, Amy (Joelle Brabban) matures from an amusingly spoilt brat when she becomes a nurse. But again, why the heinous crime of burning Jo’s novel is downgraded to ripping up her diary is a puzzle. As for Beth, Molly Madigan has the task of bringing the quietest of the sisters to life and succeeds in making her goodness and stoicism appealing, while Haylie Jones is admirable as Meg, bearing all the responsibilities of the eldest. Nicola Blackman could perhaps have made a bit more of the imperious Mrs March although too easy to become a pantomime dame or a caricature. By contrast, Robert Maskell does well by Mr March, and more so as the sad, irascible, but kind hearted Mr Laurence. But, but, but, what an marvellous choice with Paislie Reid as irrepressible heroine Jo; absolutely delightful, she quite literally had the audience in the palm of her hand for the whole show.

Well, purists may cavil, or spend too much time trying to remember what actually happened in the book but this was an intriguing adaptation by Anne Odeke. And always a treat to visit Chester’s Open Air Theatre, and with the added facilities (picnic area), strings of lights and a pleasant Summer evening (once the rain had gone), it was all quite magical.

Little Women plays until August 29th at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Reviewer: Carole Baldock

Reviewed: 2nd August 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★