Nothing can keep Hetty Feather down. An orphan’s life is a hard one, especially in Victorian England – and Hetty has it harder than most orphans, spending years enduring cruel treatment in London’s Foundling Hospital. But in her mind, Hetty soars. And with the aid of a little stage magic (and a lot of remarkable skill), lucky audiences can see her soar too.
She’s the indomitable title character of Hetty Feather, an enchanting production that lifts the spirits and raises the roof at Delaware Theatre Company. The heroine of a series of children’s books by British author Jacqueline Wilson, Hetty is a rambunctious, imaginative, playful and hopeful young girl – “an imp,” her foster mother calls her – in the tradition of plucky literary heroines like Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Pollyanna and Harriet the Spy.
For Hetty, the sky’s the limit. When she’s told that the Foundling Hospital will train her to be a servant girl, she retorts “I don’t want to be a servant girl!” When she gets separated from her foster brother, she goes to extremes to be reunited with him. And she never loses sight of her main mission in life: to find her long-lost birth mother.
But adults shouldn’t worry that her story is simplistic or cloying: she faces hard realities with a sober practicality. Poverty, sickness and death haunt her, and Wilson doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. Even though Wilson focuses her story on young people, she never talks down to them. As a result, Hetty Feather is a story that will resonate with adults as well as it does with children.
The stage adaptation of Hetty Feather originated in London, at the Rose Theatre Kingston, in a production directed by Sally Cookson; the new DTC production, directed by Bud Martin, takes its visual cues from that version. And what visions they’ve created! Katie Sykes’ set design resembles a circus ring: ladders soar to the heavens and surround the playing area, while ropes, a metal hoop, and acrobatic silks hang from the sky for the actors to climb onto. When young Hetty visits a traveling circus and sees an acrobat contorting herself in the hoop, she climbs right up and becomes an aerialist herself. When Hetty and her foster siblings climb a backyard tree, the silks and ropes take the place of the tree’s limbs. Martin’s production keeps returning to circus imagery, using it as a metaphor for all the freedom Hetty is longing for.
Hetty faces every challenge with a wide-eyed expression, and you can’t blame her: the set instills its own sense of wonder. The set embodies Hetty’s high-flying imagination. And the fantasy of the circus setting provides a nice balance to the harsh realities Hetty must often face.
It helps that the cast is so versatile, both in acrobatics and in their vivid characterizations. As Hetty, Clare O’Malley has an infectious smile, a lilting voice, and an engaging personality that will win over the harshest skeptic. And the four other cast members play all the other roles, from choirboys to horses, making lightning-fast costume changes along the way. Karen Peakes radiates warmth as the foster mother forced to give up her children, and later as a hospital employee who takes Hetty under her wing. Michael Philip O’Brien, Dave Johnson and Terry Brennan play Hetty’s brothers, each with a differently complicated relationship to her. Rachel O’Malley is the aerialist who inspires Hetty. Under Martin’s confident direction, you can feel the longing for connection amongst all the main characters. And all move gracefully in the air, with the help of Aerial Director Kendall Rileigh.
Sykes’ costume design pays tribute to British performing traditions, with the actors wearing the wide-striped leggings and tights of 19th Century circus performers, and men dressing in drag to play women. But you don’t need to be conversant in these styles to appreciate the wit and joy with which they’re presented. Andrew W. Griffin’s swirling lighting and Michael Hahn’s crystal-clear sound heighten the drama.
Emma Reeves’ script tells the story with economy and skill, capturing all of the story’s essentials without getting too sentimental. At times, though, it does come across as too bleak, especially during the downbeat conclusion of Act One. And two of Hettys’ four siblings are given the short shrift; when they do make brief appearances, one gets the feeling that Wilson’s 300+ page book is being compressed before your eyes.
The two-member live band – winsome singer/musicians Liz Filios and Josh Totora, chockfull of shabby gentility in top hats, tails and baggy pants – evokes the traditions of British music hall, with accordion and string bass adding an old-fashioned flavor. The songs by Benji Bower, Seamas H. Carey and Luke Potter aren’t noteworthy (they have too many weak rhymes), but the accompaniment is so delightful that many viewers probably won’t notice.
In the show’s final moments, Hetty encourages theatergoers not to treat her fantastical story too lightly. “It’s not a fairy story,” she insists, “it’s real life, and people don’t always live happily ever after. But we will.” Wise words from a brave character who will give audiences young and old a lot to love.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.