Jacqueline Wilson books were firm favourites of mine as I was growing up, and considering she has penned in excess of 100 children’s books, I’m sure Wilson’s literary creations sit proudly on many bookshelves across the country. Hetty Feather tells the story of a young spirited flaming red-haired girl who was abandoned by her mother at a foundling hospital. Hetty’s (Phoebe Thomas) life is littered with struggles and, as with many of Wilson’s protagonists, she uses her vivid imagination to escape from the hardships of the foundling hospital. She fantasises about a rose-tinted future where her estranged mother returns to rescue her from her ill-fated existence. However, as Hetty herself explains, her tale is “not a fairy story, it’s real life and people don’t always live happily ever after”. Therein lies the brilliance of this show: it never panders or patronises its young audience, instead rewarding them with an inventive, spellbinding and in parts dark production worthy of their limitless imaginations.
The set is comprised of an oversized climbing frame, an aerial hoop and red satin silks, which the skilled cast buoyantly climb, effortlessly suspend from and playfully dangle themselves from, to create a fantastical playground that seamlessly transforms into the big top for Tanglefield’s Travelling Circus. Like Hetty, the young audience are equally amazed and astounded by the circus skills and our eponymous protagonist dreams of one day being able to perform as part of their troupe. Alongside such mesmerising spectacles, the darker moments are executed with equal aplomb. For instance, when Hetty is being caned it is done so in slow motion with exaggerated facial expressions; meanwhile at the end of the first act, when our heroine is forced to have her precious locks chopped off, streams of orange paper are rapidly pulled out of wooden buckets to suggest her hair is being violently cut off without ever touching a hair on her head. These stylised creative choices cleverly suggest a sense of drama and heightened tension without ever being gratuitously bleak or scary.
Benji Bower’s score is refreshing, using folk and blues-y influences to provide a melody for lyrics that are really witty. Musically it reminds me of a cross between Once and Matilda. My only slight qualm about the production is that I thought that as Matron, Matt Costain could be a tad more menacing. Yet Hetty Feather is everything a family show should be and more. With stellar performances, it is educational and heartfelt and, after seeing such impressive aerial work, I was left with a strong urge to look up the nearest place to brush up on my circus skills.
Hetty Feather is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6 September, before continuing on a regional tour. For tickets and more information the see Hetty Feather website. Photo: Hetty Feather Live.