It has turned into a summer of Little Women. Three years after film-maker Greta Gerwig raised the profile of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Mark Adamo’s adaptation is enjoying a UK premiere at Opera Holland Park in London, while there are stage versions outdoors in Chester and indoors in Pitlochry. In troubled times, this tale of resourcefulness, romance and sisterly solidarity offers warmth and reassurance.
In Chester’s Grosvenor Park Open Air theatre production (★★★★☆), playwright Anne Odeke boldly sets her adaptation not in Massachusetts at the time of the American civil war but 50 years later – and on another continent. Her March sisters come of age in Chester as the nations of the triple entente are weighing up against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
What you lose is the sense of small-town isolation; men might be in short supply as the first world war calls them away, but it is hard to think of the sisters being cut off from the world when they can pick up a job in a munitions factory or – in a self-referential touch – take the air in Grosvenor Park.
What you gain is a historical motive for their independent spirit. We meet Paislie Reid’s Jo as a teenager finding her voice at a suffragette rally. Taking on traditionally male jobs during the war, women were finding a more vocal place in public life. In this context, Jo’s dream of being a writer, like the similar ambitions of her sisters, is a feminist act of self-determination.
Reid is tremendous in the role; gobby, quarrelsome and loud, with an intelligence and winning smile that makes her impossible to dislike. She holds attention in the difficult outdoor space, whether she be leading Zoe West’s acoustic score with a spot of beatboxing or holding her own against the marriage plans of Samuel Awoyo’s Laurie, whose charm is no match for her fiery autonomy.
Joëlle Brabban, Haylie Jones and Molly Madigan make strong impressions as Amy, Meg and tragic Beth in a production by Natasha Rickman that is as raucous as it is ultimately moving. Acknowledging the communal setting, she keeps us entertained with clap-along songs, an outsize bumblebee and even sweets thrown to the audience (oh yes she does) and, even if it is stronger at broad brush strokes than delicate detail, she establishes a clear enough sense of purpose for us to care about the characters’ fate, to welcome the play’s condemnation of prejudice and to be uplifted by its neat happy ending.
Three hundred miles north in Little Women (★★★☆☆) at Pitlochry festival theatre, playwright Anne-Marie Casey has streamlined the version first seen in Dublin’s Gate theatre for a cast of eight. She takes fewer liberties with the novel than Odeke but also, in a production by Brigid Larmour of Watford Palace theatre, hits fewer of the emotional high points.
Despite the trees that populate Ruari Murchison’s set, Casey’s focus is on the domestic. We see the sisters’ journeys into the wider world always in the context of the home that pulls them back. It is the place where they sing Christmas carols in four-part harmony, where they bring their future partners and where they bicker or find consolation.
Played by Rachael McAllister, this Jo March is bratty and precocious, a young woman finding her place in the world via her mistakes rather than her spirit of independence. The romantic stakes are low – it is not clear what either she or Jessica Brydges’ Meg see in Richie Spencer’s Laurie – leading to an ending that is comfortably resolved more than moving.
• Little Women is at Grosvenor Park Open Air theatre, Chester, until 29 August. Little Women is at Pitlochry festival theatre until 29 September and that production then runs at Watford Palace, 11–22 October.