NODA review for Little Women

Review by Richard Fitt

Performance on 30th November 2023

Director: Condoleezza Hankins
Producer: Sue Lander
Writers: Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Scott Davidson

One of my mantras in life is ‘Never underestimate the young’ and last night I had a perfect demonstration of why you should never forget that. At first, I’ll be honest, I raised an eyebrow when I learnt that Sharnbrook had entrusted such a classic story first published 155 years ago to a director who is only twenty years old. Add to that the majority of the cast itself were young and whose CVs in the programme showed they were very much at the beginning of their acting careers, but what maturity, way beyond their years, this group demonstrated with their final presentation.

The set, by Kevin Beirne, Adewale Olukotun, Gerry Stafford and Hamid Zarandi was a typical Victorian-style sitting room, comfortably furnished with leather sofa and ‘Queen Anne’ style high-backed armchair. The walls to the rear were marine blue with pale wooden border panels in a lighter blue spaced symmetrically across it. In the centre of which was a large fireplace with its ‘stage effects’ fire burning brightly. In the opening scene there was a Christmas tree next to the fire covered in various decorations.  A curtained window on the other side of the fireplace with a painted flat behind it gave an exterior rural view. To either side were the two round arched entrances serving as a lobby to the unseen front door stage left. which was well decked out with coat hooks, and the exit to the rest of the house stage right. To the front of the exit stage right was a small dining table. And to the far stage left was an upright piano, which was used in the opening scene. The musician’s gallery directly above the stage was used for all other scenes. And finally, images in classic Victorian style drawing and handwriting was projected onto the rear of the gallery wall to inform the audience of the date of the action, which spanned the 1860’s.  With the two sets above and below each other it meant there was little or no scene changing which under the stage management of Ricky Johnson were smoothly and efficiently done.

Lighting by Dave Jones, Flic Jones and Harry Holt was also an essential part of the slick scene changes. At the end of one scene Leila Hoch, playing Jo March was seated on the sofa, blackout and two seconds later the lights came up and she was seated at the table the other side of the stage. Very slick indeed. But there were a couple of lighting cues I didn’t follow which left one side of the stage unlit despite action taking place, which I expected to be corrected but weren’t…?

With the actors being without the usual mics, and what a delight that was to see projection properly executed, Mark Luckin as the sound designer had little to do, but sound effects such as the initial piano playing in the first scene was neatly synced with the actress concerned.

Costumes were provided as usual by the very resourceful Pin Up Girls, Virginia Pope, Deanne Tucker and Gill Ridley. I’m no expert but it looked very mid-19th century American to me, from the very expensive dresses of Aunt March to more everyday clothes of the 4 sisters, to the wonderfully quirky ones worn by Hannah. Visually all very pleasing. As for the gentlemen I doubt you could look more authentically Victorian than Miles Dolby as Mr Brooke. All aided and abetted by Susan Moore and Debs Bobka in charge of wigs and hair. And not to forget Stephanie Wisson who made the props and historically researched the accuracy of it all. Good job ladies!

First thing to say about the actors is that there were no weak links in this cast, everyone played their part in the telling of this ‘coming of age story’ with complete conviction. The story is told through the eyes of Jo March played by Leila Hoch in her first appearance at the Mill, as is the case for all four of the sisters, Emily Dignan as Meg, Lauren Chacon as Amy and Grace Powell as Beth. In Grace’s case it is actually her theatre debut, which makes the remarkable performances played by all four of them even more so! Each brought their character to life very convincingly.

Josh Broomhead as Laurie and Miles Dolby as Mr Brooke certainly stepped up to the mark as well, the awkwardness of youth, the lack of confidence in the presence of the sisters of not quite knowing how to express themselves was particularly well put across. The body language between all the fledgling actors was absolutely sublime and captivated the audience completely.

The really clever bit, to bring me back to my first paragraph about not underestimating youth, was the way this youthful cast and its young director put in so many awkward pauses, hanging half-finished sentences out to dry with long silences, without for a moment losing the pace. If anything, it actually made the audience visibly tense and certainly kept them concentrating. I have seen many an experienced older actor who couldn’t do that as well as these six did. It was master class for their older peers! An art form this bunch had no right to understand this early in their careers!! Welcome to the Mill, you should be dominating this stage for many a year to come. If I could offer one piece of advice it would be to slow down a little bit and annunciate a bit clearer, as some of the speeches were gabbled a little too fast and thus lost in places to the audience.

On the other side of the coin the very experienced Virginia Pope, straight from the sewing room, in what she describes as her ‘swan song.’ swept commandingly on to the stage as the old fashioned, narrow minded, wealthy Aunt dominating every scene she was in. The way she bristled off almost stumbling off the stage in a huff, having been told ‘no’ and what she could do with her money in no uncertain terms by Jo, was so realistic and yet at the same time brilliantly comic. Definitely a memorable moment from a very polished actress.

Alexandra Goodbody as Marmee, played the classic mum to perfection, there for her daughters at every twist and turn with words of comfort and encouragement. Again, simply faultless in the part.

My favourite character however has to be Hannah, whose forceful interjections were delivered with the arrogance and command that only a well loved and long-standing servant could get away with. She just nailed the part and provided a lot of the humour with the way she moved around the stage.

Finally Tris Baxter-Smith with the smallest part of Father put across kindly concerned and love for his family very well indeed with what few words he had to say.

So well done indeed to Director Condoleezza Hankins, Producer Sue Lander and the cast and crew of this very well thought out production. The attention to detail and the complex interaction between the various characters defied the age and experience of those involved.