The neighborhood of make-believe is a hazardous place for parents. An orphanage full of fictional orphans would be packed. We’re talking Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Little Orphan Annie, half of Shirley Temple’s characters, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and, of course, Hetty Feather—the red-headed title character of Jacqueline Wilson’s beloved novel. Playwright Emma Reeves has penned a theatrical adaptation of Wilson’s larger-than-life tale. The touring production is now playing on the Asolo Rep stage.
It’s a dickens (or a Dickens) of a story. In a nutshell, an unwed mother in Victorian England abandons her baby at London’s infamous Foundling Hospital. This institution takes away the child’s name and gives her a new one — Hetty Feather (Chloe Mantripp). But it stops short of giving her a new life. Echoing history’s real-life heartbreak, this inhospitable hospital lets parents adopt babies, but only on a temporary basis. (Infants in dirty London die, you see.) So, families in England’s clean country air get to raise the kids until they’re six. Such is Hetty’s fate. For a few happy years, she runs free on a farm and has a magical experience at a traveling circus — when Madame Adeline (Nikki Warwick), the flame haired, horse-riding, circus star, lets her get into the act. Hetty grows up in a loving home — until her time is up. After her forced return, the gulag-like hospital cuts off Hetty’s hair and does its best to break her spirit. But she remains unbroken, with visions of the circus dancing in her head. One ally comforts, consoles and protects her — the cook, Ida (Sarah Goddard). Hetty is grateful, but she imagines Madame Adeline to be her true mother. The red-haired rebel seems destined to run away and join the circus. Life doesn’t work out that way. Hetty’s destiny is, perhaps, better.
This circus of the mind depends on your imagination. Actors perform multiple roles. Two fans and a duct become an elephant. Five snorting actors sporting tails become horses. Katie Sykes’ versatile set — basically a wooden framework with a hoop swing, ladders and silks — stands for anything the play wants it to be.
Director Sally Cookson keeps this flying circus grounded. There are lots of moving parts, but she holds it all together.
Mantripp is excellent as the plucky orphan — and flies through the air with the greatest of ease in her signature hoop swing. Goddard is winning in dual roles as her foster mother and her protector at the hospital. Matt Costain is great as her supportive foster brother and the hospital’s highly unsupportive, child-hating, Matron Bottomly. Warwick’s plays Madame Adeline as both Hetty’s idealized childish vision and the slightly burned out real person. The comically versatile Nik Howden and Mark Kane play Hetty’s other foster brothers and more roles than I can count.
Luke Potter and Seamas Carey are crowd-pleasing as two strolling musicians — who stroll back and join the band when they’re not trading jibes with the audience. They’ve got great material to work with. Composer Benji Bower’s songs range from British folk tunes (folk like Ian Anderson and Steve Winwood, that is) to the very Beatles-ish beat of “She Doesn’t Want to be Here.”
Gwen Hales, the aerial director, weaves the circus arts into the musical; the swinging, climbing and silk work never feel tacked on or gimmicky. Emotion is expressed through movement as much as words and music. The result isn’t quite dance, but it has a family resemblance. The circus stands for self-actualization, freedom and flight. The Orwellian world of the Foundling Hospital is a gravity-bound flatland. Freedom is the three-dimensional realm of the circus. When Hetty feels free, she climbs in her hoop swing and flies.
Like its title character, the play is mercurial, inventive, fearless and fun. It’s a powerful expression of the American character — well, okay, the British character, though I suppose they were here first. Let’s move on …
“Hetty Feather” will entertain kids and adults too—without insulting anybody’s intelligence. A darkness lurks beneath the flash and filigree. The Foundling Hospital is a harsh, hateful place. Hetty’s full of spirit. She lives in a regimented world that wants to beat that spirit out of her. Her happy ending is a victory, but never guaranteed.