Jane Eyre Parts I and II at Bristol Old Vic

Felix Hayes(Rochester), Madeleine Worrall (Jane) by Simon Annand_webTHERE is something of a fashion to adapt vast novels for the stage in two or more parts, most of them involving large casts and vast sets.

But the current show at Bristol Old Vic, a new working of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre devised by the cast under the direction of Sally Cookson, is on a scale that the audience does much more than watch enthralled.

It’s a journey for the actors, musicians and the audience together – an intense, multi-faceted and fast-paced exploration of a period and a life that leads into the heart of the novel.

The result is a triumphant retelling of a familiar story, visually exciting and compelling, with a score by Benji Bower and an impressive soundscape designed by Mike Beer.

The simple but clever set designed by Michael Vale allows the company to bring Bronte’s geographical distances and winding corridors with hidden rooms and multiple staircases to life, sometimes stark and sometimes oppressively enclosed, as the cold outside is contrasted with the meagre heat of a poor fire, and the birdsong that follows the opening of windows brings new hope.

Split into two parts, with a clever visual precis of the first to open the second, this adaptation manages to refer to all the important parts of the story, at the same time as injecting some humour that both gives breathing space for the audience and underlines the humanity of Bronte’s creation.

There is lots of role doubling (not all of it as detailed in the programme!)

Only two performers, Madeleine Worrall as Jane and Melanie Marshall as Bertha, are credited in single roles, though the remarkable Melanie Marshall, a classically trained singer with a range and depth that makes the hair stand up on the back of the listeners’ necks, performs a musical narration throughout the piece.

First seen at BOV as Wendy in Peter Pan, Madeleine Worrall starts the performance crying like a baby as Jane is born, rapidly orphaned and sent, unloved, to the home of her uncle. With no affection other than from the maid Bessie, she is abused by her cousins, sent to a school run by an authoritarian clergyman, befriends a girl whose illness rapidly claims her, and advertises for a job as a governess.

Her life changes when she arrives at Thornfield Hall to look after the excitable Adele, ward of the taciturn Mr Rochester. But her miseries are far from over.

Madeleine Worrall (Jane), Laura Elphinstone (Adele), by Simon AnnandThe company includes Craig Edwards, perhaps specially memorable as the dog Pilot, Laura Elphinstone pathetic as Helen, wonderfully spirited as Adele and magnificently self-righteous as StJohn.

Felix Hayes is an impressive Rochester, exposing a vulnerability under his brusqueness.

Maggie Tagney, a familiar face on the local stage, is the detestable Mrs Reed and the lovely Mrs Fairfax, with Simone Saunders as Bessie, and many other well delineated characters.

Running in all for four and a half hours, the two parts retain an excitement, foreboding and hopefulness, and I for one coudn’t wait for part II to start.

The production – one of those that will be remembered and referred to for years to come – continues until 29th March, with a few chances to see both parts in sequence. Contact the box office for details.


Photographs by Simon Annand


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