The idea with Carl Miller and Christopher Ash’s wilfully weird show is that the Brontes were like a rock band. The musical puts mics in their hands and the three sisters (plus Branwell) wail their way through their tumultuous lives.
Musically there are bits of everything – pop, punk, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, sometimes all within the same song. Great songs battle with completely weird ones, like Emily’s ode to her dog which starts out with the drummer barking, adds a ukelele, then a growling synth line.
Ash’s score makes huge demands on the cast. Melodies writhe and lurch so restlessly that the performers sometimes struggle to find notes precisely.
But Adam Lenson, master of the fringe musical, brilliantly directs the excellent cast. Natasha Barnes makes Charlotte a sensible older sister, matronly and in charge, while Molly Lynch is an introverted Anne. Siobhan Athwal’s Emily is weird, twisting her face and twirling her hair and switching psychopathically from smiling to glaring.
A theme about gender expectations rumbles away: talentless Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan) is so sure he’s the Brontes’ shining light, while the sisters are actually talented but have no expectation of recognition.
Act II takes a downturn, labouring its message about legacy to a toe-curling degree, and there are way too many songs for so little plot (the Brontes write some novels and then die).
While it doesn’t always work, and it’s freeform almost to a fault, musical theatre in this country isn’t often allowed to experiment with form and scale like this – and when it does, it rarely makes it to the stage. So it’s brilliant to see something so brash and bizarre, existing completely on its own terms.