Jane Eyre [Open Air Production]

Maskers Theatre Company    Townhill Park House, The Gregg School, Southampton Anne Waggott

18 July  2023

“Jane Eyre, raised in poverty and neglect, but sharp-witted and thirsty for knowledge, fights to make a better life for herself. Love is unexpected.”

Theatre experiences (and reviews!) are always subjective to a degree; whether a production succeeds or fails can be as much down to audience taste as it is the performances and production elements themselves. As Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels and I have seen many renditions of it, both on stage and screen – with a few that have, to be honest, made me despair – I was somewhat apprehensive to discover that Maskers Theatre Company’s current Open-Air Production had been specifically adapted by Director Meri Mackney.

I need not have had any misgivings, as Mackney and her team have created an enjoyable faithful and condensed version of Charlotte Brontë’s classic romantic and heroic tale; moreover, they have flown in the face of the old adage “Never work with animals and children” to charming effect! The young actors from Light Up Drama Company are a welcome addition to the cast, with beautiful Buf arguably stealing every scene she’s in as Mr Rochester’s dog, Pilot.

The eponymous heroine, Jane Eyre, is played by three talented actors. Harriet Clarke gives a spirited and confident performance as young orphan Jane: feisty resilience against the cruelty and neglect of her aunt, Mrs Reed; bravely standing up to the taunts and bullying of her cousins; and strength of character as she withstands the hardships of life at Lowood School. Rachel di Nucci is composed yet passionate as the adult Jane, reflecting how the character developed at Lowood into a young woman who wants to expand both her intellect and wings, becoming first a teacher at the school, then governess at Thornfield Hall. True to Brontë’s novel, Abby Brine (Narrator Jane) directly addresses the audience in the first person, providing considered insights into Jane’s life with serenity and compassion; make no mistake, being an engaging narrator is no mean feat, but Brine is just that – an enchanting storyteller.

Adam Taussik brings a mixture of scathing mistrust, moodiness, sarcasm and fiery desire as Rochester, mysterious master of Thornfield Hall and guardian of his young ward, Adèle Varens (a delightful Evelyn Fayle), the excitable illegitimate daughter of a French dancer. Maddy Cope is clearly relishing her role as the violently insane Bertha Mason with her physicality and maniacal laugh; while she could be even more aggressive, the element of restraint actually adds to the underlying threat which Bertha poses to both Mr Rochester and Jane.

In an ensemble production such as this where many of the actors are playing more than one role, it’s difficult to succinctly comment on each individual performance; however, there is strong support throughout the cast, particularly from Jo Iacovou as quick-tempered yet caring Bessie, Rob Iliffe (making his Maskers’ debut in the dual roles of harsh Mr Brocklehurst and troublesome Richard Mason), and Anna Hussey (as contemptuous Blanche Ingram, Jane’s adult cousin Georgina Reed, and kindly Diana Rivers).

With exquisite period costumes (depicting both rich and poor), a well-conceived set that lends itself easily to multiple locations and dates, soothing classical music, excellent special effects and a stunning location, this is an aesthetically pleasing play. Although Act 1 is “quite long for it to work dramatically”, the narrative flows readily at a smooth and genteel pace, almost mesmerising the audience, and the strength of the performances ensure a most enjoyable evening.

Jane Eyre runs until Saturday 22 July (7:30pm each evening with a 2:30pm Saturday matinee), with the grounds open for picnics at 6:00pm (1:00pm for the matinee).