Director Lucy Kempster’s rendition of Polly Teale’s historical drama about the remarkable literary family is a brooding, intense affair. This rural Victorian Yorkshire story is made bleaker by a spartan set and atmospheric candlelit stage.
The loss of their mother and two sisters combined with a disciplinarian father leads three sisters and a brother to escape into their vivid imaginations.
Mike Edwardson is Branwell the brother with high expectations on his shoulders. Edwardson shows his frailty and vulnerability effectively, present even under the surface during a disturbingly violent exchange with Charlotte (Amelia Jones). Teale intimates that characters from their books may have been inspired by Branwell’s real life. We see Emily (Helen Bradbury) writing Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff (Edwardson) madly embraces Cathy (Alice Ordish) mirroring Branwell’s own real doomed love affair. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has Helen (Anne aka Ellie Webb) struggling with drunken Arthur reflecting Branwell’s alcoholism.
Charlotte’s classic Jayne Eyre is evoked by some initially subtle appearances from a striking mute lady, Kristy Kruithof. Soon it’s clear she is Bertha, Rochester’s tragic wife. Andy Beasley appears as Rochester and as Patrick Bronte while Jones is Jayne Eyre, implying Charlotte sought a father figure.
The fractious nature of sibling relationships is depicted well. After Branwell’s death, Bradbury’s Emily literally gives up the ghost. Webb’s Anne is quieter, more introspective. Teale includes an insightful footnote about celebrity. Perhaps Charlotte was better off being ordinary.