Tag Archives: Melanie Marshall

“Jane Eyre” from NTLive

After its crowd-pleasing offering last week, with One Man Two Guvnors, The National Theatre presents an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic that started life at the Bristol Old Vic. It’s a marked contrast, with a worthy air, that tells the story of everyone’s favourite orphan governess through movement and imaginative touches in a self-consciously theatrical fashion. I suspect this is the kind of show that suffers most when filmed, as the atmosphere doesn’t carry, and its failings are exaggerated.

A first flaw comes with Benji Bower’s musical direction, a confused mix of styles from Noël Coward to a Kyrie eleison. The execution is great, especially Melanie Marshall’s singing, but avant-garde touches come close to cliché and parts make no sense: why choose Mad About the Boy, denying the “flurry of a first affair”, when that is exactly what Jane is experiencing?

Sally Cookson’s direction has some inventive touches. Many connect to the lighting design from Aideen Malone, which is strong. But there are too many obvious moves, literally – the direction of movement (from Dan Canham) is predictable, while costume changes scream their import. There’s too much running on the spot and too much climbing up and down the ladders that make up Michael Vale’s set. There’s also a cast member performing as dog – never a good sign.

A relatively small ensemble might be expected to shine given how hardworking they are, but the characters, like the accents, are too broad to impress. Thankfully the leads are a success. Felix Hayes makes a good love interest for Jane; his Mr Rochester is convincing as both a profoundly tortured soul and a “trite, commonplace sinner”. Aided by a beautiful voice, Hayes even manages to say “humbug” without getting a laugh.

In the title role, a mammoth part, Madeleine Worrall is very good. Eminently watchable, Worrall does well with Jane’s fighting spirit and winning dignity. As she holds her own against authority, we see her characteristic balance of common sense and passion. And with the latter, Worrall shows us Jane’s intense emotions, focusing on the painful romance in the story and establishing a great chemistry with Hayes.

Worrall’s achievement is all the more praiseworthy given that, unlike Brontë’s heroine, she seldom addresses us directly. This key ingredient feels skipped, while the plot is followed slavishly. Frustratingly, the answer is onstage – Jane’s famous first-person narrative appears when the ensemble doubles as an inner dialogue. The technique works well, but it doesn’t happen often enough. The result, despite a long running time, is a Jane Eyre that conveys little to us and ends up feeling slight and skimpy.

Available until Wednesday 15 April 2020

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Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Fela!” at the National Theatre

Fela! arrives from Broadway with much fanfare and celebrity endorsement. The story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, legendary Nigerian musician and political activist, even has its own exclamation mark – which at least saves me from adding one. Like Fela’s life, this show has a spirit of revolution and is filled with so much energy it will take your breath away.

Fela invented Afrobeat, a musical genre of great sophistication enriched by the heritage he embraced. A potted history lesson at the start of the show sets this out clearly and, even if the songs aren’t to your taste, the performance of them is so electric they are sure to win you over.

Not everything about the show works: direct addresses to the audience and an attempt to give a dance lesson fall rather flat. Even if a British audience does join in, they don’t really want to. There must also be a worry that, given the average age of the patrons at a National Theatre matinee, attempts to shake hips during afternoon shows might well result in serious injury.

Thankfully Fela! is not just a tribute show. The music is superb and the choreography by director Bill T Jones is stunning, but it is the story that surprises. As Fela is about to leave his country after suffering political persecution, he has to justify his actions to himself and to his dead mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti (Melanie Marshall), who was an inspirational figure. We also meet another important woman, the American Sandra Izsadore (Paulette Ivory), who furthered his political education. The performances from both women are outstanding and their voices sublime. Exploring these relationships makes for riveting drama.

As Fela recounts his own life, the tendency to hagiography is inevitable, but this is clearly signposted. Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the title role on Broadway, treads the fine line between showing us a real person as well as revealing a genius. It is a performance showing such talent it becomes easy to see why so many followed Fela and so great you will be tempted to do the same.


Until 23 January 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 17 November 2010 for The London Magazine