What's On - 8 December '04
Andrew Loudon's Novel Theatre specialise in adapting classic children's literature for the stage. He made his directorial debut with Louisa M Alcott's Little Women (now at the Duchess Theatre for Christmas). Meanwhile, his production of L M Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is at Sadler's Wells.
Emma Reeves, who adapted Little Women, has again brought a complicated story to the stage without compromising the original. The marvellous thing about the March family in Little Women and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables is the characterisations of the principals. Anne is a feisty, red-headed Canadian orphan girl living a lonely existence surrounded by smallminded neighbours. She has a wild imagination and tends to let people hear what they want to hear, even if it's not true, and she's a born philosopher from a line of independent spirits such as Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
When she is fostered by a childless couple, she has a difficult time, but eventually wins them over. She talks to trees and flowers and is a born worrier ("I can't eat in the depth of despair").
AsAnne, Ruth Gibson is nothing but adorable. Ths small cast double up well and there are good performances from Jenny Lee as foster mum Marilla who really wanted a boy, David Baron as husband Matthew, Diana Barry as Anne's best friend and Matt Canavan as the token boy, Gilbert. One review complained of the show being "cosy, familiar and completely safe." Well, maybe that's why audiences will love it. It's certainly why I did.
* * * * Michael Darvell
With the aptly named Novel Theatre Company's production of Little Women firmly ensconced in the West End over the holiday period, Emma Reeves has adapted another classic favourite of little girls everywhere. the result is really rather captivating - irrespective of whether or not you've read Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery's 1908 original. The first and best known of her novels, it tells the story of a feisty little orphan who finds love, friendship and a new home with bossy spinster Marilla Cuthbert and her gentle brother Matthew.
Director Andrew Loudon has chosen to tell the story within a modern framework, as an ostricised refugee schoolgirl escapes from her classmates' taunting into the world of fiction. That apart, the production - which had grown men blubbing by the end - rarely puts a foot wrong. Rachel Payne's attractive design is both functional and just the right side of twee, and the performances are nicely observed. David Baron is delightfully sympathetic as the dignified matthew whose quiet wisdom ensures that he usually gets his way - even to the point of getting Anne the fashionable dress she so longs for. Beccy Armory's puffed up Josie is a cheeky little pest, and there's nice work, too, from Joanna Croll as marriage-minded Ruby, and from Lisa Hewitt as best friend Diana.
But the production stands or falls by its red-haired Anne - and, as the curious little girl with a big vocabulary and a supersize imagination, Ruth Gibson definitely comes up trumps.
16 December '04
When ageing brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert advertise for a boy to help out on their farm, it comes as a shock to find that the orphanage has sent an 11-year-old girl instead. Marilla, a sharp and rather severe woman, wants to send her straight back - but Matthew, despite having no experience of caring for a child, is charmed by this precocious chatterbox with flame-red hair and convinces his sister to keep her at Green Gables. Thus Anne Shirley arrives in Avonlea, and soon makes a dramatic impression on the staid, small-minded community.
LM Montgomery's story has been justly popular for almost a century, with its loveable heroine whose vivid hair matches her imagination, who keeps getting into scrapes, but grows up nothing short of an angel.
Emma Reeves' adaptation for Novel Theatre retains the book's good humour and the stifling impact of social expectation and respectability on Anne's wild romanticism, while foregrounding the theme of 'the outsider'. This is deftly achieved by framing the action with modern-day classroom scenes in which a schoolgirl - a refugee? An asylum seeker? Or simply someone with a different coloured skin? - is bullied by two white girls. The device gives the play, which is otherwise set in Canada's idyllic Prince Edward Island, a strong contemporary relevance and helps to avoid the sentimentality which is the main criticism levelled at the novel itself.... this is an attractive and thoroughly appealing production that will have boys as well as girls of around eight upwards searching out the original text. And that can never be a bad thing.
16 December '04
Canada's answer to Little Women was a brash, outspoken but adorable redhead called Anne, "spelt with an E", who gets into scrapes.
L M Montgomery's 1906 novel has thrilled generations of girls who just wished they had the nerve to dye their hair green or break a slate over a mocking schoolboy's head.
Now director Andrew Loudon and writer Emma Reeves have brought the novel to the stage in the first wholly successful adaptation, largely thanks to a splendid central performance by Ruth Gibson, blissful casting for the freckle-faced Anne, who invests this pushy little pickle with a lovely sense of wonderment and joyful bonhomie that disarms and utterly delights.
In a picture-book rustic setting, David Baron and Jenny Lee as Anne's foster folk strike exactly the right note of affectionate warmth mingled with occasional exasperation, coupled with Tina Gray's sumptious schoolmarm and Lisa Hewitt as bosom pal Diana in an hilarious drunk scene.
Reeves wraps this classic tale within an unnecessary narration, beset by bullies in an inner-city comprehensive, which may confuse those who have not read the book.
It is an unexpected error of judgement that will surely be ditched when this otherwise gem of a show is revived.
British Theatre Guide
Philip Fisher (2004)
You can't help but fall in love with Anne Shirley, the tomboyish heroine of Anne of Green Gables. This is a testament to a wonderful central performance from carrot-haired Ruth Gibson but also a timeless tale with a dash of the Novel Theatre formula.The company already has Little Women playing in the West End (at the Duchess). Writer Emma Reeves and director, Andrew Loudon have now found another Nineteenth Century North American tearjerker as a kind of little sister.It is likely that this is how little orphan Anne, a great fantasist, would see it, as she loves naming everything. She arrives in Avonlea straight from an orphanage in Nova Scotia, much to the disappointment of bluff Matthew and stern Marilla Cuthbert.They are an ageing brother and sister played by David Baron and Jenny Lee, the latter struggling with her Canadian accent, who had ordered "a smart, likely boy of thirteen or so" to help out on the farm but instead got themselves a dreamy, wilful girl with a fiery temper.
The play then follows the redhead through her teen years. She is accident prone but also heroic. Not everyone can almost drown while re-enacting a tale of Arthur's Lancelot, dye half her hair green and then save the life of a baby girl.She is loquacious to the point of verbal diarrhoea and makes friends and enemies with equal alacrity, generally of the same people! This is a dual consequence of precocious intelligence and remarkable stubbornness.From humble beginnings, Anne eventually becomes the star of her year at college but, after a tragic event, proves excessively noble before inevitably getting the boy that she had spurned for an age.The plot can be overly sentimental but the heroine can still talk to her peers today. This is made clear by a parallel plot that doesn't entirely work about a Russian immigrant to Yorkshire (judging by the accents) who is bullied by her xenophobic classmates but escapes into the novel.
The transitions into the past can be reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and the little Russian girl gains confidence, watching over her heroine. However, the Yorkshire story itself is sub-Grange Hill.The production values are high with a bright, attractive set that looks like something from a children's animated cartoon and a capella singing from the ensemble led by the sweet-voiced Beccy Armory.
Novel Theatre is beginning to develop a style that has many devoted fans. They are not afraid to trade on sentimentality and escapism. A measure of their success is the way in which audience members are surreptitiously forced to wipe away tears. Long may they continue to do so. britishtheatreguide.info
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