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.