Laura Turner’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite standard in many ways. The period has been kept, as have the central relationships of the play. We as an audience are treated to a year in the life of the March sisters with all the tribulations which that entails, be that war, illness, or love. The resounding charm of the sisterly relationships still holds up, as does the story’s message of maintaining one’s creative drive in the face of adversity.
Unfortunately, these messages all get slightly muddled in the confused structure of the play. In order to keep the cast size small and limit the amount of necessary locations, Turner has cut a few characters and their attached storylines, namely Aunt March. This could work reasonably well however no attempt has been made to find someone else to fill Aunt March’s narrative role, namely to give Jo something to rally against and for. For almost the entire play, Jo has no drive beyond being a writer. Even this, she seems to achieve too easily. Nothing brought this to attention more plainly than when Laura Peterson, as Jo, made reference to her temper in the second act and I was left wondering, what temper? There had been little adversity, very little for her to be angry about.
Jake Smith’s direction is occasionally inspired but often stunted. The movement in the show is limited by Ed Ullyart’s set which, while beautiful, is crowded and difficult for the cast of eight to navigate when all of them are onstage. Ullyart has managed to create a beautiful depiction of the March’s house but there are too many chairs to be tripped over, the thoroughfares are just too narrow and it stilts the play in moments when it should be fluid. That said, the way both Ullyart and Smith have worked together to create moments of magic such as the changing seasons is amazingly creative.
The acting performances, while occasionally lost behind accents, were remarkably convincing. All four of the sisters managed to drive the narrative of the story with energetic performances and whip-crack precision. Despite being given very little stage time to develop the relationship between Beth and Jo specifically, Louise Willoughby and Laura Peterson managed to be amazingly moving. Michael Kinsey and Evie Gutteridge even managed to play a slightly ill-timed runaway to Paris off as entirely acceptable (another element lost in translation due to the absence of Aunt March).
Ultimately, I do not think Little Women is irredeemable. It is endlessly charming and sweet, funny in the right places, and poignant in the right places. Every time the snow fell on the stage, the child inside me jumped for joy. A few essential elements let it down and left it to drag where it should have rushed onwards. Nevertheless, if only to see Peterson spar with Harrison Rose as Frederick in the second act, it is definitely worth a ticket.
Little Women is playing the East Riding Theatre until 5 January. For more information and tickets, visit the East Riding Theatre website.