Little Women is one of those texts we all think we know. Four March sisters, without their father away fighting in the Civil War, darning things (and their lives) while not letting the sun go down on their anger. Yet the new production at The Lyric Theatre makes us look again at Louisa May Alcott’s radical rite of passage classic.
At the start, there’s talk of gentleman suitors, a ball, and you wonder whether Alcott was an American Jane Austen. Not so, as there is not enough aunt March acerbic commentary (Alison Harding ) to puncture the homilies. In fact, we could drown in the decency except that director Emily Foran cleverly cuts through the mood with the young women’s mischief. They fight, hit, shout the odds, although never Beth ( Maura Bird) who plays the piano peacefully in the corner. Magnificent Jo’s temper isn’t underplayed by excellent Marty Breen and the incident where Amy, the baby, vents her wrath at being left out of a trip by burning her sister’s magnum opus is well done.
The story unfurls, Jo meets their rich neighbour Laurie (inspired Cillian Lenaghan), whom she regards as another chap, the war injures their beloved Pa. And Beth gets scarlet fever which leaves its mark. There is; though, a nascent feminism abroad in parts of the March household, nicely evoked in a cutaway home with the occupants always visible. Jo declares eventually she never wants to marry and starts selling potboilers to a cheap but popular magazine. And Marmee, who has salty things to say about housework, is the emotional glue holding it all together in spite of the recurrent fear of poverty. Jo Donnelly gave a good account of the woman and her utterances on love.
In a way, this is a play of two halves. In the second act, with reference to Alcott’s sequels, the action is shifted to New York City, the time is shifted to a more modern era. Jo is working and living in a boarding house. She entertains and is entertained by an émigré German professor (Ash Rizi). Loss is coming and there is a very moving scene between Jo and Beth, now declining, over how to treat her death. The set has an autumnal, fall colouring, leaves fall and we sense adulthood means change. Meg (effervescent Ruby Campbell) marries Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, has twins and becomes nicely maternal. Amy (Tara Cush) is taken as a companion to Europe and returns with airs, graces and her sister’s former beau as her husband. He declares, touchingly, he will always love them both but for a moment, the cosy family unit looks shattered.
After an argument about writing values and an author’s responsibility not to palm off Gothic horror on her readership in The Weekly Volcano, the Professor and Jo unite. She took his advice, started writing “from the heart” and produced the very story we’re watching onstage. Little Women is a beautiful production, a good choice of play here, thought provoking and still retains a period charm.
Little Women runs until March 2 (lyric.co.uk).