Review: Underdog – The Other Other Brontë, National Theatre

Natalie Ibu directs a bracingly hilarious production of Sarah Gordon’s Underdog: The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre

“This…is not about me”

Truth be told, my abiding memories of childhood visits to Haworth are steep hills, the amazing old-style sweet shop and the giant filled Yorkshire puddings we had for lunch. For many others though, it has a long been a place of pilgrimage for devotees of the Brontë sisters. Such folk may take umbrage at Underdog: The Other Other Brontë but if you can hold that Sarah Gordon’s play is an act of imaginative theatre rather than scholarly precision, a raucously good time is yours to be had.

That is evident right from the off as Gemma Whelan’s Charlotte strides through the stalls, challenging audience members on their favourite Brontë quotes and as she takes the stage amid the lushness of Grace Smart’s flower-strewn heath, the earth rises, exposing the tangled undergrowth which is the true setting for the play. For Gordon wants to look at the complexity and competitiveness of the sisterly relationship here, albeit through a more modern lens.

So as Charlotte narrates a self-aware version of her biography, it is with the acknowledgment of a misogynistic society that can’t entertain female writers (hence the pseudonyms) and our increasing awareness that she happily rode roughshod over her sisters. Her overbearing nature reduces Adele James’ Emily to the sidelines in the play and Rhiannon Clements’ Anne to the floor as her fears that Anne might actually be a more talented writer result in some pretty appalling behaviour.

For all the seriousness in the subject matter, Gordon relishes in bringing an anachronistic energy to her storytelling and in director Natalie Ibu, finds the perfect playmate. If it annoys you that the sisters are depicted going to London by horse and carriage than by train as they apparently actually did, this might not be for you. But if that is your focus, rather than the hilarious way in which the journey is staged, milked for every possible laugh, then consider yourself warned.

Ibu uses a male ensemble (Adam Donaldson, Kwaku Mills, Julian Moore-Cook and an exceptional Nick Blakeley) expertly to amp up the larkiness of the humour. But she also reins it all back for some moments of powerful emotion – the simple beauty of starlight, the air being sucked silently from the room as Charlotte’s confidence is smashed by others.

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