Chris Eldon Lee reviews Hotbuckle Theatre’s ‘Jane Eyre’, which is touring to Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on November 15th and 16th. 

If you can believe a school girl with a beard, you can believe anything.

That is what Hotbuckle Theatre are supremely good at. Using their audience’s imagination to the utmost, they have recreated an entire 19th Century novel with just four actors, one red light and a pair of curtains….plus some absolutely superb acting.

It is so good, you are completely caught up in the spirit of it all. Indeed, the marvellous magic of the show is that they do so much … with so little.

So, of course, a school girl is played by a bearded man because they have no option. And a surly serving wench is played by a bald-headed bloke … and a righteous vicar by a woman with her hair up. Why ever not?

I’ve never read Jane Eyre, but her tale of woe and hopefulness sprang out at me so vividly on the tiny Cheltenham stage. Emily-Rose Hurdiss plays the central role with such poise and precision…from an innocent ten-year-old being bullied by her horrible headmaster, to a lovelorn young woman, silently yearning for an older man. It’s an icy first encounter with Rochester, but she visibly warms to him.

I’ve seen Emily several times now, usually as the pillar of the production, and she is so very good at holding an audience and winning its heart. This is a huge part, but she is strong and assured on stage and so expert at conveying deep emotion, the theatre dissolves to nothing and it feels like it’s just you just watching her.

Jane’s response to her friend Helen’s death, for example, is heart breaking. Yet, on the rare occasions Jane Eyre has cause to smile, it is as if the sun has come out. This is Emily at her best.

The new recruit to the Hotbuckle troop is Luke Lampard whose Edward Rochester is world weary and reticent, but also rather kindlier than I expected. His Rochester is a man who simply doesn’t see Jane’s devotion to him until it is so late, her dignity prevents her from accepting. Luke has a fine and easy stage presence. You’d barely think he was acting.

Joanna Purslow’s acting ability is simply stunning. I’m biased, of course, because I’ve worked with her myself and believed I already knew how good she is. But I was wrong. I was blown away by the blossoming depth of her talent. Joanna’s supreme strength is her character acting and here she is called upon to play no fewer that 11 individuals in snapshot succession. With exceptional focus, she switches so convincingly between parts…with just a shawl or a tilt of her head and a change of highly authentic accent. In some cases, she has barely a word to establish a new persona, but you are never in doubt.

When she is Rochester’s haughty fiancé, she is straight backed, tight-lipped and destructively manipulative; more in love with his purse than his personality. When she is called upon to be a caring house-keeper, empathy pours out of her. And when she has to invent a tuneless, gesticulating French schoolgirl - performing an atrociously bad party piece - she is so outrageously cacophonous, the audience bursts into laughter.

Just by counting the actors, it is obvious Jo was going to play mad Mrs Rochester. And with her hair in wild array, her sudden, torchlit appearance through the curtains is bordering on the terrifying. Again, this is the best thing I’ve seen her do.

That is partly, I suspect, because Adrian Praeter was able to write the script with  Jo and Emily in mind – to make the most of their talents. And it shows. It’s a full and faithful adaptation of the novel which will leave Charlotte Bronte fans deeply satisfied.

Adrian directs with great ingenuity. He has his actors so well drilled as they duck and weave between scenes, it’s fun to guess where and when who will pop up as who. He himself picks up the comedy cameos with the cheeky confidence of a seasoned professional. His mannerisms alone speak volumes.

I was already a Hotbuckle fan when I went to see this show. Now I am a disciple. No other company I know does historical novels so well. Shrewsbury tickets are already scarce. Act now!     

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