With a stirling production crew behind them, York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre present Emma Reeves’ colourful adaptation of beloved children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s book, Hetty Feather.
Our heroine Hetty (the very capable, long-standing Youth Theatre member Hannah Brown) is a boisterous redhead who gives her brothers a run for their money, growing up in an ever-rotating crowd of foster children eventually returned to the forbidding Foundling Hospital in Victorian London. Forming attachments where she can and daydreaming the rest, Hetty counts her losses but fights fiercely for the bonds she makes as she goes.
The 45-strong cast of young people perform alongside professional actor and former YTR Youth Theatre member Laura Soper, as the amusing Madame Adeline. Bringing Wilson’s poignant tale of friendship, family and identity to life in the wide open Main Stage space, the performance is decorated beautifully with enchanting design by Katie Sykes, lighting by Richard G Jones and music by Kieran Buckeridge. Directed by Kate Veysey, the play is also dotted with aerial hoop and silk work, choreographed by Jen Parr.
This aspect certainly fits Hetty’s ambitions of being absorbed into the warm bosom of the circus, and provides a nice opportunity for the cast to develop their performance skills, though this could be more smoothly integrated into the action to aid the sense of flow. There are however sequences that really do find the right balance of action, design and story to make Hetty Feather sing, such as the tragic train journeys to the Foundling Hospital, not to mention a musical number, “Roll up, roll up, you desperate mothers”, all too reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables’, especially with the echo of Jean Valjean’s number in Hetty’s.
Very heartfelt performances are given by Millie Howard as Hetty’s birth mother Ida, Joshua Burland and Stan Gaskell as adoptive brothers Gideon and Jem, to name but a few, but perhaps most impressive of all are the puppeteers of the formidable circus elephant, created and directed by Marc Parrett and consisting of a huge structure of sticks and card, swaying with well-observed naturalistic movements and complete with squirting trunk.
With an overarching message of hope and strength in the face of adversity, this is a show that truly honours the works of the author, and unites young newcomers to her stories with their parents who grew up on them many years ago.
Hetty Feather played at York Theatre Royal on 30 August 2019. For more information on York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre, click here.