By Richard Bowdery
Playwright Polly Teale has not taken the easy option with Bronte, her third and final play to look at this remarkable literary family. Some writers might have stuck to a linear approach to tell the story of three women who wrote at a time when it was considered unfeminine to do so. Not Teale. She has interwoven characters from various Bronte novels to add a new dimension to the telling of their story: highlighting the struggle to get their books and poetry published and the prejudices they faced along the way. In the 19th century it was very much a man’s world.
The downside to this approach is one of understanding. Those in the audience not overly familiar with the Bronte novels, the use of characters – Arthur Huntington from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Rochester and Bertha from Jane Eyre, Heathcliff and Cathy from Wuthering Heights – could have made this approach difficult to follow. This could be the reason I found it a little slow to get going (a failing of mine not the playwright’s). But the crisp writing, accomplished acting and assured direction guided the audience through these potential difficulties and soon it was up and running.
Played out against a backdrop of life lived in spartan conditions we are drawn into the world of a dysfunctional family. Patrick the domineering father rules the roost but cannot stop Branwell, his son, descend into drink and opium addiction. And whilst he can demand an end to his childrens’ arguing when it assaults his ears, he can do nothing as they clash over their literary ambitions. Sadly he was also powerless to halt the spectre of death that carried his wife and six children to the grave – all before their 40th birthdays. His two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, do not feature as they died before the other sisters writing careers really got going.
Fortunately there were comic moments throughout that acted as a counterbalance to the darker side of the Bronte’s lives. This had the audience chuckling along whenever these occurred.
There was one area where the play could have tripped up. A more politically-motivated director could have positioned it as a rant about the lack of equality between men and women: being that it is such a hot topic in the workplace today. But Andy Solts did well to integrate this element into the other issues the sisters faced which provided a well-rounded telling of their story.
To complement the 19th century setting, Frederick Chopin’s music underscored the production. This gave it a haunted quality that in some instances communicated an emotion as well as any words could have done.
The acting was of a high quality from a talented cast. They gave their all with an assured and passionate performance drawing the audience into the story. It was a delight to watch. But two performances in particular deserve a mention.
Richard Toynton was not only convincing as the family’s patriarch but also as Rochester, Arthur Bell Nicholls, the Curate, and Charlotte’s French teacher M. Heger. The way he slipped effortlessly into each character made you forget it was the same actor playing four parts. The other was Laura Ings Self as Emily. Her performance drew your eye even when she wasn’t speaking her lines, such was her on-stage presence.
At the final curtain it was as if two hours had passed in a flash: a sure sign of a quality production. So the decision to open this award-winning amateur theatre to the general public would seem to be an inspired one. This move will not only generate additional income, it will also draw bigger audiences to see this jewel, hidden in the backstreets of Bromley North. And with quality performances such as Bronte – which transported us to a different time and a different place – the audiences will come and keep on coming.