The excitement starts long before Hetty Feather takes her place on the circus hoop dangling from the main theatre at Bristol Old Vic. Walking along King Street with her friends, all of them familiar with the story to varying degrees, my 9 year old knows this is going to be something special.
And, like laughter, excitement is contagious. Once you feel it, it’s hard to shift, particularly when the author of the Hetty Feather books (and much more besides), Jacqueline Wilson, is there in person, giving autographs, acknowledging her fans. My girl puffs out her chest, stands in the small queue and beams at the woman who also created Tracy Beaker. “OMG, I have met Jacqueline Wilson!”
In the auditorium proper, there’s a lot of chatter. On the stage is a circus, a set rich in colour – Designer Katie Sykes has stepped well away from the darkness of the Victoriana we have come to know through so many novels and TV series set in the period and, instead, has opted for hope, promise, fun.
It’s 1876. Given up by a desperately poor single mother, Hetty is ‘lucky’ enough to be afforded a place at the Foundling Hospital, London, where she will be educated and prepared for a life in Service (the boys will become soldiers). For the first six years of her life, though, she will enjoy the freedom of childhood in rural Kent, enveloped by the warm arms and ample bosom of lovely Peg (Sarah Goddard), surrounded by her foster brothers and sister. But then, the time will come to return to the Hospital, under the stern eye of an ever watchful and slightly threatening Matron Bottomly (Matt Costain).
For the second time in her young life, Hetty is left with nothing (“not even my name is my own”) and her already defiant spirit grows within her so that this resourceful, sensitive and rather wonderful little red headed girl is ready to take on the world. With fantasies of a life in the circus, Hetty runs away to reconnect with aerial performer, Madame Adeline (the mesmerising Nikki Warwick), with whom she has already glided through the air so freely.
Because this is a story of freedom. Of being true to who you are, despite the detritus that life might throw at you. It’s a show that every child should have the opportunity to watch, to see what theatre can offer. Directed by Bristol Old Vic favourite, Sally Cookson, and composed the brilliant Benji Bower, this was always going to be a huge hit. Using similar theatrical devices, Hetty Feather reminded me of the almighty Jane Eyre at the same theatre last year. But it is also thoroughly modern, without gloom, as though a dazzling filter has been placed between what you would expect from a Victorian orphanage and what we actually see.
The cast of six (and two musicians) feels like dozens as they glide around the stage, full of energy and the wonder of childhood. Phoebe Thomas is particularly well cast in the title role and the rapport with her siblings feels real – these actors play young children without ever coming across as sickly or patronising. There are some sad moments and at least once I had to breathe deeply and swallow away a tear.
Brought to life by a team that is very hard to beat, Hetty Feather tells of the resilience of every generation, no matter when we were born. Fabulous.
Hetty Feather is now on tour! You can find the dates on the website
Visit Bristol Old Vic to see what else is coming up.