Sunday, 9 August 2015

Review: Hetty Feather at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Hetty Feather
Duke of York’s Theatre
Reviewed on Friday 7th August 2015

The Duke of York's Theatre had a rare air of palpable innocence and enthusiasm on Friday night. Young children, dizzy with excitement, piled over each other for popcorn, played hide and seek in the bar, and gazed longingly at ice cream freezer chests with all the reverence of a pirate reclaiming his long lost booty. This was no snack driven summer camp, mind, but the opening night of Hetty Feather, a glorious adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson's novel of the same title. This may be a children's show, but make no mistake it is a production which whips along with creativity and inspiration, as well as an engaging maturity.

Unfamiliar as I was with the narrative of the novel, Hetty's adventures had me hooked from the start. Phoebe Thomas as Hetty always drives the plot with verve and enthusiasm, ensuring a degree of positivity even when things are at their most bleak for the titular fiery red head. The delicate balance between the fanciful flights of Hetty's imagination and the harsh realities of 19th Century living are fantastically achieved. The show is never patronising, featuring some darker elements and true moments of emotion. Hetty herself remarks that her story “is no fairy tale” and that not everyone can enjoy a happy ending.

What truly makes this production come alive is the direction of Sally Cookson. Much like the heroine of the show, Cookson has a knack for “picturing”, allowing passages of text to explode into visual life with detailed movement and inspirational prop work. A mundane train journey becomes a rhythmic parade of sound and movement, echoing Hetty's overwhelming sensory experience as a new baby riding the rails. Elsewhere the majesty of an elephant in the eyes of a five year old is exquisitely displayed with nothing more than some fans and a length of tube.

The six-strong cast do a wonderful job of enacting Cookson's vision. There is complete commitment throughout as the actors gamely embrace their multitude of roles, finding humour in physicality and pathos in the text. There is impressive movement too, as the circus themes permeating the piece inform the physical journeys of the performers. They leap and climb all over the set, part aerial display, part kids on a climbing frame, turning ladders into beds, and love affairs into beautiful suspended ballets. It all has the boundless energy of youth and captures the very spirit of Hetty herself.

Praise must also go to Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter's work as the musicians. They make an affable duo, entertaining the audience with patter and songs before the show began and consistently making an impact throughout with some pleasing underscoring. Benji Bower's compositions have a folksy lilt which informs the emotion on stage, without ever feeling invasive or superfluous.

This is a delightfully charming evening in the theatre and a genuine treat, for both young and old. If you're familiar with Hetty's adventures, come and delight at Cookson's imaginative realising, and if you're not, then come and gasp at the plot twists with the rest of the fledgling Feather fans! Whether it's a desire to play 'squirrel houses', or a compulsion to read the gory tales of the Police Gazette, there's something here to inspire the rest of any child's summer holiday. 

Reviewed by Will Clarkson

Hetty Feather runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6th September 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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