It’s steady as she goes for Blackeyed Theatre‘s take on Charlotte Bronte’s Victorian classic. Nothing too radical. Nothing to spook the traditionalists. There’s a spot of music played by the cast, a kind of parlour folk composed by George Jennings around Bronte’s poems. Otherwise, it’s your regular frocks and frills costume drama, where emotions are buttoned up and passions buttoned down (at least until such time they can be held onto no longer). Even writer Nick Lane admits in his programme notes that he’s not diverged much from the source material. ‘Once you distil the dialogue and craft it for the stage, what [Bronte] has put on the page is a gift.’
Kelsey Short takes the lead, playing Jane straight and simple in honest-to-goodness northern tones. To link scenes, she narrates for us too. (Reader, she gets laughs for the novel’s most famous line.) Ben Warwick is her Rochester, rather boyish and tousled of hair.
The show is solid enough, but something’s missing – something fiery, something brooding. Even with all that happens within – death, abuse, violence, mental illness – Adrian McDougall’s production retains a genteelness about it. The proto-feminist protagonist feels somewhat passive; even in her most determined moments, life feels like it’s taking charge of her, not she of it. And such chemistry as exists between her and Rochester is supplied more by the script than on stage sparks flying.
Camilla Simson provides a performance with more oomph as the bullying Aunt Reed (among other characters), while Elaine Toms and Oliver Hamilton share the remaining characters, as well as much of the music. Hamilton’s earnest and pragmatic St John Rivers is a figure of fun from first appearance, which makes his proposal to Jane seem even more arbitrary and misplaced than it needs to be, and Simson’s Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic‘, is given short shrift with an unsympathetic, old-fashioned portrayal that’s straight from the horror playbook. By and large though, most of the characters tick the right boxes.
‘How did you approach adapting Jane Eyre?’ Lane was asked for the programme notes. ‘Very, very carefully’ was is the answer. Perhaps a little too carefully as it turns out.