I don't know a single youngster who isn't a fan of the Hetty Feather novels by Jacqueline Wilson. And the author – famous for tackling real and gritty issues where fairytale endings don't always come true – should be very happy with this production. We watch as Hetty (played brilliantly by Phoebe Thomas) is left orphaned at the Victorian Foundling Hospital, and the audience are soon transported into a world of circus, colour and acrobatics.
Alongside our heroine, we witness an escape from reality through the eyes of a young girl down on her luck. The idea behind the story is a familiar one: there are glimmers of Oliver, cleverly acknowledged by the musical score, and Annie all rolled into one. But the contemporary twist the company has put on it makes it easily accessible to a mixed audience.
Our leading lady is surrounded by an ensemble of strong performers, kitted out in old-fashioned circus outfits which are used ingeniously throughout. They are responsible for the smooth, continuous movement of the scenes, and provide convincing character changes which effortlessly carry the audience along. Two skilled musicians (Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter) provide every sound effect imaginable to accompany the story from start to finish; the score is clever and the harmonies delightful, particularly in the finale reprise.
The relatively simple set consisting of ladders, ropes and long bright ribbons is also used to great effect, encouraging both young and old in the audience to engage in the world of imagination and make-believe. One minute the copious ribbons are a squirrel tree house, and the next they represent a nostalgic reminder of what had been left behind. The re-creation of a life-size elephant on stage is also a very clever moment, as is wondrously convincing characterisation of the circus ponies; the actors capture the mannerisms and different personalities of what, with a little of the magic of theatre, come to seem like real-life animals.
The playing out of sibling rivalries is funny, moving, and for any of us with brothers or sisters, instantly recognisable. But the topic of loss dominates throughout, and the show draws on an almost overwhelming myriad of themes – some darker than others. We watch as our heroine experiences grief, loneliness, love. Pretty much every possible heart-pulling emotion is there, and the moral of the story, to be strong and courageous, remains in focus throughout.
And because of that, I would have appreciated a little more stillness at times, to let the poignancy of some of the more touching scenes settle. The powerful moments, particularly between Hetty and her siblings, are sometimes lost among the abruptness of sudden movement. It is a myth that children need “busy” all the time, and I would encourage the company to trust that they can also deal with stillness and silence if an environment is established to good effect.
Saying that though, looking at the little faces surrounding me, it was obvious that this production had hit the spot. If any of your children are Hetty Feather fans, treat them to a visit to the Theatre Royal this summer holiday. And adults beware – for after watching this show, you may well be tempted to run away to the circus too.