Up until a month ago I’d never read a book by Jacqueline Wilson; a matter that wasn’t particularly alarming to me as after all, I am not a pre-pubescent girl – the author’s supposed target audience. This was a serious misjudgement. After some coaxing I randomly chose Lily Alone, which, like Hetty Feather is about a spirited and extraordinarily courageous and determined girl. There’s a magic in Wilson’s work; one that doesn’t require any element of fantasy, transporting the reader to another world and instead, relying on the undeniable power of a child’s imagination and the often painful and heartbreaking factors many have to face. It is clear that, like Lily Alone, Hetty Feather settles on some dark and unpleasant matters but the eternal optimism that dwells in the recesses of a young imagination ensures that hope always prevails. Most crucially, Wilson’s writing appeals to far more ages than I realised.
Emma Reeves has done a wonderful stage adaptation of the first of four books in the Hetty Feather series. I haven’t read it so don’t have anything to compare to, but perhaps this is a good thing. Like reading a great book and then seeing the screen realisation, nine times out of ten you’re going to be disappointed with how far away everything is from what you imagined. I doubt that is the case here. Sally Cookson’s direction and Reeves’ work has certainly generated something special that not only fires the words off the page but adds an extra special amount of creativity from an absolutely striking team.
The set used for Hetty Feather is a relatively simple one that focuses on a circus theme. Long drapes and rope hang from carefully constructed bars and there’s also a large hoop that, alongside the former, sizes up as a gymnastics playground. There are quite a few moments where the audience is treated to some epic circus tricks but more beautifully, a huge amount of aerial work (directed by Gwen Hales) such as when Hetty and her foster siblings are playing make-believe in a ‘tree’. The genius of this set doesn’t stop there as mentioned ring doubles as a metaphor for authority and freedom as Matt Costain’s Matron barks orders from a great height and Hetty realises her true passion whilst flying with Nikki Warwick’s Madame Adeline.
The heart of this story is family. It is injected into every part of the production and emotion then pours out like a rainbow-infused waterfall. Yes it’s upsetting but deeply uplifting too, a feeling that is aided by the excellent music, performed by the majority of the cast themselves. Composer Benji Bower creates a beautiful and captivating atmosphere that at times has a ‘rocky’ feel and thank heavens there was the confidence to do such a strange mix because the contrast with the show’s tone is amazing.
Phoebe Thomas’s Hetty is perfect. She captures what I imagine Wilson dreamt up and maintains a largely physical performance throughout. Her obvious maturity to the character doesn’t make an ounce of difference, so convincing is she of a girl who starts off as a newborn and ends around ten. Matt Costain’s Matron is wonderful and of great appeal to the young ‘uns in the audience. He portrays the vile but probably misunderstood villain with gleeful abandonment and switching to another character at regular intervals is impressive. Sarah Goddard’s various incarnations are excellent but it is her turn as smaller parts – circus ring-leader (“I’ll give you a kick up the arse!”) and defecating horse are hilarious.
Hetty Feather is brilliant and it is stinkingly obvious how talented everybody involved is. Doesn’t hurt that Jacqueline Wilson herself was sat right in front of me too (squeal!).
Hetty Feather is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 6 September. For more information and tickets, see the Hetty Feather Live website.