Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 13 October, 2004

Thereís a school of thought that the West End would be leaner and fitter if it lost a few playhouses. One of the candidates mentioned in this scenario is the 476-seat Duchess Theatre.  Itís important to have such medium-size venues, but sometimes they book studio-sized productions that, when blown up to fit a house like this, just go pop.  And thatís whatís happened at the Duchess, for the second time this year.

Andrew Loudon of Novel Productions has been flogging this stage adaptation of Louisa May Alcottís novel for over five years now; this is its fifth outing.  The production, and Emma Reevesí adaptation, drew respectable reviews during its runs in smaller venues.  But what works in an intimate space like the New End, or even a larger studio like the Lilian Baylis, can seem horribly over-exposed in the West End.

The story of the March sisters Ė reliable Meg, sickly Beth, tomboyish writer Jo (based on Alcott herself) and her sibling rival Amy Ė has both period charm and a kind of sentimental allure.  Reevesí adaptation skips adroitly through the novel, striking a deft balance between character and event.  And you can see how an audience sitting only a few feet away would be engaged by the show. But, alas, not here.

Rachel Payneís set design is clever in its use of gauze screens to separate characters from each other. The trouble is that theyíre also separated from us, even more than by the proscenium arch.  What was once lightness of touch in the adaptation and Loudonís direction now becomes a failure to supply the depth of feeling necessary to make an impact.  We never connect with the romantic travails, or even with Bethís death.

Sarah Grochala has almost enough spunk to carry off the role of Jo, and Daniel Betts gets applause for one of his cameos as two very different suitors.  In the end, though, you canít help wondering repeatedly what a show like this is doing in a theatre like that. They just donít fit together.  It all looks and sounds extremely pretty, but would you sit watching a chocolate box for over two hours?

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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