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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall review at Octagon Theatre, Bolton – ‘a sure-footed adaptation’

Youngest Bronte sister Anne is considered by many these days as a grittier and more radical writer than her older siblings. In the second of her two novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne painted a wholly unvarnished and – unlike Charlotte and Emily – completely unromanticised picture of the flawed menfolk of her era and the women left wounded in their wake.

This good-looking and atmospheric Octagon co-production succeeds by taking Bronte’s central message of early feminism and running with it.

Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation artfully filters and tweaks Bronte’s time-shifting narrative – which unfurls via letters in the novel – revealing the backstory of the titular hall’s mysterious occupant and the plot’s twists and turns in a satisfyingly well-paced way.

Elizabeth Newman’s assuredly modulated direction finds wry humour early on in the tittle tattle of the Markham family’s small-town concerns but lays on the gothic foreboding in spades when required, aided by Ben Occhipinti’s unnerving soundscape of ever-present wind and Johanna Town’s effective lighting.

Things take a soapy turn in the overlong and, at times, overwrought second half. This is not helped by the slightly two-dimensional nature of Marc Small’s drunkard of a husband. But Phoebe Pryce’s near-perfect performance, as the single-minded and ahead of her time Helen, rises above this, providing the believable emotional through-line that the play demands.

Her slow-burning, tentative romance with Michael Peavoy’s compelling, brooding Gilbert is what powers the story to its well-earned conclusion. It manages to deliver a romantic payoff while still honouring Bronte’s assertion that a woman should be in control of her own destiny.

Verdict
A sure-footed adaptation that rises above its innate soapiness thanks to a brilliant central performance

Production

Production
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Venue
Octagon Theatre
City
Bolton
Starts
March 30, 2017
Ends
April 22, 2017
Press night
April 3, 2017
Authors
Anne Bronte
Adaptation
Deborah McAndrew
Director
Elizabeth Newman
Choreographer
Lesley Hutchison
Set
Amanda Stoodley
Lighting
Johanna Town
Sound
Ben Occhipinti
Stage manager
Gareth Newcombe (deputy stage manager)
Cast includes
Colin Connor, Natasha Davidson, Nicole Lecky, Michael Peavoy, Phoebe Pryce, Susan Twist
Producer
Octagon Theatre, York Theatre Royal
Running time
2hrs 35mins