Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school

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Nick Lane’s third script for Blackeyed Theatre has a lot more in common than his predecessor than the first two, but this old style still suits Blackeyed Theatre well.

Nick Lane is currently all the rage with Blackeyed Theatre. His adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not written for Blackeyed but they did the biggest tour) was a great success and is returning later this year. Since then, he’s stayed with the company and written two more adaptations: Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four and now this adaptation of one of the most famous Bronte novels. It’s a step away from Blackeyed Theatre’s strongest area of gothic horror, but only a small one. Out goes the setting befitting of those Draculas and Frankensteins, and in comes the bleak windswept moors that characterise the stories of all three Bronte sisters – something that evidently suits Blackeyed’s style well.

The usual challenge with adaptations of classic books is how to keep the cast size manageable. Unless you are setting your sights on a West End-scale production with the number of actors in double-figures, you have to delicately arrange the characters over a small cast, doubling up parts when you can, cutting characters when you can’t. Fortunately, Blackeyed Theatre have plenty of practice on this matter, and this is no exception. Kelsey Short plays Jane Eyre, seeking her own way in the world after a childhood raised by begrudging relatives. Staying faithful to the book, she also narrates in first person – after all, “reader, she married him” just isn’t the same. Ben Warwick plays Mr. Rochester, who takes her first a governess, and later seeks her as his wife. They form a good double act, with our heroine’s good heart and naivety contrasting with a principled but damaged man trying to reconnect with his human side.

To some extent, doing a faithful adaptation is a bit of a thankless task. In a more adventurous adaptation (such as Jekyll and Hyde) you take a gamble, but if it pays off you get the credit for your idea. But in this kind of adaptation where there’s less room for innovation, it’s hard to rise above a status of middle man. If you get it wrong, your failings in the adaptation are noted, but if you get it right, the glory goes to the original author. There’s really only one way this can be rewarding, and that is if you loved the book and your goal is to tell that story as best you can on stage – which is largely what Lane set out to do, and succeeds rather well. It’s an easy adaptation to follow, the characters are believable and the setting suits the play well. These are generic compliments that could be made of any well-made adaptation, but if there was a moment from this that I’d pick out, it’s Jane’s visit to her dying foster-mother who spoilt her own children at Jane’s expense. On the one hand, after her own children used her and bled her dry, you ought to feel sorry for her – and yet, with her delusional disdain for Jane Eyre even after all that’s happened, she goes to extraordinary lengths to squander the sympathy she otherwise would have had.

The most notable thing about this production, however, is that Blackeyed are reconnecting with something: the acoustic sound plot. Much as I’ve loved Nick Lane’s scripts so far, there was one thing I missed from the Ginman/Giuralarocca era, and that was the lost art of playing all the sound on stage. Modern sound equipment can of course be very effective and very versatile, but I’d not forgotten how good the old methods can be for the right play if you know how to do it well. Well, possibly as a result of AD Adrain McDougall directing this play, this has been rediscovered to some extent. The play is heavily driven by music, with most of the cast singing or playing piano at various points throughout the play. I’m glad this has not been forgotten, because alongside Victoria Spearing’s sets, the acoustic sound was one of things that made their style unique.

If there’s one limitation of the play that’s I’d pick out, it’s that the acoustic sound plot doesn’t quite live up to those of Ginman & Giuralarocca. There was the odd bit of falling-back to speakers for sound effects like the rain. It’s not a big deal, but in Dracula and Frankenstein they found ways to represent similar sounds on stage, and it was invariably done awesomely. But that’s only a testament to the high standards we are used to from Blackeyed Theatre. Jane Eyre is a fine example of how Blackeyed Theatre can play to both its old strengths and its new strengths. Alternatively, we can judge this on how Nick Lane wants this to be judged, which is simple on whether it did justice to the original novel. And the all-round verdict is clearly it does. Either way, it’s a job well done once again.

Jane Eyre returns to the north-east on the 6th-7th of May at Middlesbrough Theatre.