“I want to be a servant girl”
There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have gotten to see Hetty Feather were it not an early 11th birthday present for my niece but I’m mighty glad that I did as it proved to be a most unexpectedly enchanting piece of theatre. She’s a big fan of Jacqueline Wilson’s original novel whilst I’d barely heard of her at all but Sally Cookson’s hugely inventive production of Emma Reeves’ adaptation managed to charm both of us (and make both of us cry in the second act!)
Cookson frames her stage within circus apparatus designed by Katie Sykes, a climbing frame with ropes and silks and trapezes which the company climb and clamber and swing with fearless acrobatic skill, which shapes the playful feel of the whole show. Phoebe Thomas’ Hetty has all the mischievous character of the most compelling of protagonists, a troupe of performing horses are hilariously conjured with plumes and even an elephant named Elijah comes to pay a visit.
The production needs this lightness of spirit as the story is really quite a sad one, Wilson sparing us little of the fear of a strict Victorian childhood as Hetty is abandoned by her mother and has to work her way through the emotional trickiness of a foster family and then the fearsome Foundling hospital run by Matt Costain’s formidable Nurse Bottomley. The show has the right balance though, not sugar-coating the rough edges of Hetty’s story but rather letting her imagination take flight and keeping hope alive.
Benji Bower’s score is a delight throughout, performed live by Seamas H Carey and Luke Potter who also open proceedings with a cheeky pre-show set including a wonderful ode to Wilson; Sarah Goddard is wonderfully pitched as a number of important mother figures in Hetty’s life; and Mark Kane’s Gideon, Hetty’s gentle foster brother, is a powerful conduit of both comic and emotional relief – family theatre at its best.