The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (adapted by Deborah McAndrew)
The Octagon, Bolton [11.04.2017]
Sitting in a seat with a somewhat restricted view following a very long and arduous bus journey (though to be fair these events were separated by some thought provoking conversation) was probably not the best start to the evening. Leaning forward to admire the set was an error on my part, there was very little visual artistry to greet or titillate.
Now, is probably a good time to say that the classics are not of huge appeal to me and I don’t usually write reviews in this style. However, there’s a first time for everything and said time is upon us.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (we’ll refer to it as Wildfell from now on) is the sort of play that my best friend would appreciate:
It is a window into the harrowing love life and struggle for independence of a ‘widow’ named Helen. Helen has fled from her foul husband with her child and is hiding away in fear that he will find her and subject her to a life of misery. In what is now to be her new home, she stumbles across local farmer Gilbert and they fall in love, against the odds.
Or at least, that’s how I imagine her describing it (okay, maybe she wouldn’t have said that last bit).
It reminded me of Catherine Cookson’s The Girl. If you’ve not read or watched it, allow me to elaborate. Hannah marries a butcher, but is in love with a guy called Ned, who’s been in love with her since she was a child (which I find uncomfortable to say the least). Anyway, the butcher dies and Hannah sends his mother away. She gives the shop to her sister and runs off into the hills to be with Ned. Yes, Wildfell is very much like that except there’s less dramatic fighting, no butcher in sight and oh yes, there’s a dog that makes an appearance at the beginning and then it just doesn’t come back. I am not a fan of The Girl, but I am able to vaguely outline its plot because it’s the joy of my mother’s life on a Sunday afternoon. It’s more predictable than that On The Buses episode where Stan becomes infatuated by the Indian belly dancer who works in the canteen and, thanks to his good old pal Jack, he ends up taking her snake home and hiding out in his upstairs loo until she comes to collect it. Wildfell is very much like this, riddled in misogyny but less humorous.
It’s important that I highlight some good things. Number 1: Helen is a strong feminist character (be it of the time) and I can see how this would have ruffled many a feather back in the day (props to Anne Bronte). Number 2: I appreciated that the child was actually played by a child. Often adults embody children and the audience is expected to see beyond them and appreciate the craft used to make you believe they are a child. In this instance, it not only felt appropriate but would seem ill placed for an adult to perform childhood in this environment (p.s. if he can sing, they should recast him for Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol). Number 3: Gilbert (Helen’s love interest) was like a cross between Ned (mentioned above), Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre) and Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) – I think this would be a positive for many audience members. Number 4: the string music played during scene changes was rather soothing and was well complemented by the purple hued lighting changes that accompanied it. Number 5: the period costumes were complementary to the era in which the piece is set. Number 6: I liked that the dog wondered about for a bit (even though I don’t like animals).
Verdict: If you appreciate the back to back period dramas shown on Yesterday (Freeview channel 20) and would like to be immersed in one in the round (be it with a no frills no fuss set), then this is definitely the shout for you. Equally if you have an appreciation of the classics, I’m sure you’ll like this. However, if like me, you prefer contemporary theatre that defies boundaries and require a less predictable plot, give this one a swerve.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will be at The Octagon until Saturday 22nd April.