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A CurtainUp London London Review
Hetty Feather

"I was going to be a drudge for the rest of my days" — Hetty
Hetty Feather
Cast in Hetty Feather (Photo: Donald Cooper)
Following a critically acclaimed and hugely popular run at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and a smash-hit national and international tour, Hetty Feather transfers to the Vaudeville Theatre for a limited run over the summer as from 5 August, and runs until 6 September.
Hetty Feather is essentially a play for children based on Jacqueline Wilson's first book in the series about the spirited red haired girl who is taken to the London Foundlings Hospital as a baby. The "lucky" ones, as we discovered in Coram Boy are selected by picking a ball out of a hat. Those finding a white ball are accepted, the black balls sent away and the red balls are put on a waiting list in case any of the white ball babies fail a health check. In Victorian times many poor women were unable find work, look after and feed their babies and so turned to the orphanage.

No sooner has she arrived at the orphanage, she is whisked away into Kent to stay with a kindly foster family with several other "orphaned" children. Just before their sixth birthday, they are sent back to London to train in the skills needed for employment as servants.

Emma Reeves has adapted the book for the stage. Sally Cookson is an experienced director of plays for children and this production uses circus skills which the six actors employ to music from two folk musicians. The production is high energy and will keep accompanying adults well occupied. The actors will double up on many roles,for example a bonnet and apron turning Jem (Matt Costain), Hetty's boy friend from the country into the fierce Matron Bottomly in charge of the Foundlings Hospital.

When a travelling circus visits Kent, Hetty (Phoebe Thomas) sees the trapeze artist Madame Adeline (Nikki Warwick) and is captivated. She has to return to the hospital with Gideon (Paul Mundell) but when they get there, boys and girls, they think of themselves as brother and sister, are split up. Act One closes with the forlorn figure of Hetty Feather, her hair has been cut off, she's been scrubbed and put into a brown uniform dress with a white bonnet.

Act Two is darker contrasting with the joys of country life in Kent that was the basis of Act One. A bluesy song tells of the daily routines, the same old porridge, lessons and the fatigue of constant labour, learning to sew. A new maid Ida Battersea (Sarah Goddard) will be kind to Hetty. She will break into tears when reciting her alphabet at M for Mother. The other girls in the playground torment her but as Hetty can read she tells scary stories to all from the Police Gazette. The rich benefactors visit the hospital to inspect the charges. Influenza strikes and some children die in the outbreak. Hetty is asked for by a boy in the boys' wing and the play allows us to see the exuberance of the boys at play to a song "Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dog tails" with a Caribbean beat.

The children are allowed to visit Hyde Park for the 1887 Jubilee and Hetty will renew her acquaintance with the circus. Finding her real mother, she hears the story of her parents' romance played on twirling ribbon silk acrobatics.

This charming production is highly recommended for its colourful and imaginative direction, high energy and visual story telling.

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Hetty Feather
Written by Jacqueline Wilson
Adapted for the stage by Emma Reeves
Directed by Sally Cookson

With: Phoebe Thoams, Matt Costain, Sarah Goddard, Paul Mundell, Isaac Stanmore, Nikki Warwick
Designer: Katie Sykes
Composer: Benji Bower
Musicians and additional composition: Seamus H Carey, Luke Potter
Lighting: Aideen Malone
Sound: Leigh Davies
Aerial director: Gwen Hales
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office and tour: Birmingham Town Hall 22nd to 27th April 0121 345 0600
Cheltenham Everyman 29th April to 4th May 01242 572573
Dubai UAE 16th to 24th May +971 (0)4 341 4777
Edinburgh King's Theatre 27th to 31st May 0131 529 6000
Cambridge Arts Theatre 3rd to 8th June 01223 503333
Sheffield Crucible Theatre 17th to 21st June 0114 249 6000
Touring to 21st June 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th April 2014 matinee performance at the Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames, Kingston, Surrey (Rail: Kingston)

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