“Hetty Feather” is a unique and perfectly British production, adapted from the best-selling book by Jacqueline Wilson, about an impish and courageous orphan who is determined to rise above her tragic circumstances through the power of her imagination.
Frequently, Hetty (played by the indomitable Chloe Mantripp) calls upon herself or other characters to “picture it” and take a journey of their minds to where they need to be. With a relatively sparse set and characters who play a variety of roles, the production of “Hetty Feather” also asks us to go on an imaginary journey – where gender is relatively interchangeable and ages are fluid – back in time to a Victorian era Foundling Hospital for children whose parents are unable to care for them.
We watch Hetty’s mother reluctantly give her up pleading with Matron Bottomly (Matt Costain), who runs the hospital, that she will return for her daughter, but that is against policy. We see Hetty ripped away from her mother and then sent in a wet diaper with her newfound brother Gideon (Mark Kane) to the home of a kind foster mother, Peg (Sarah Goddard). Hetty lets her guard down and plays freely with the other children in Peg’s care, in a make-shift playground of pulleys and fabrics (much like those found in aerial yoga studios).
Hetty believes this will be her life forever, until one day Peg prepares her foster brother, Saul (Nik Howden) to be sent back to London. She soon learns her eldest brother and favorite playmate Jem (Costain who is incredibly charming in his second role) is Peg’s naturally born child and the others are all destined to be returned to the foundling hospital before they turn six to be put to work and prepared for a life as house maids and soldiers.
Although the ads refer to “Hetty Feather” as Orphan Annie meets Charles Dickens, it is clear this show falls squarely in the British camp. Hetty is much darker and more melancholic than Broadway’s “Annie,” and therefore, is more suited to older children. Although “Annie” is by far one of my favorite musicals of all time, it has a decidedly American flair where a self-made millionaire plucks one carefully selected, camera-ready orphan from obscurity to live a life of luxury.
“Hetty Feather,” on the other hand, requires us to look far more carefully at the social structures of poverty and refuses to tie things up in a neat little bow of wealth and extravagance to end the hardship. Hetty and the other foundlings have wounds that can’t be healed with a shopping spree and an indoor pool.
The cast is pure magic – each actor plays his/her role to perfection and the constant gender bending is reminiscent of the omnipresent Christmas “Pantomime” – a fixture in the United Kingdom at holiday time. Additionally, Mantrip and Nikki Warwick as Madame Adeline are both extremely agile aerialists capable of singing, maintaining their theatricality, and defying gravity simultaneously.
Goddard in her second role as Ida is heart-warming and delightful, and she fully engrosses the audience as Hetty’s one true friend, who shares her ability to imagine her way out of tragic circumstances.
When my family and I lived in the UK, I took my daughter to weekly Pyjama Drama classes entirely focused on storytelling and helping little ones develop their imaginations. In a Disneyfied-world, which leaves nothing to the imagination, “Hetty Feather” is a welcome and highly creative shift.
This show is recommended for older children given some of the difficult themes and is absolutely worthy of an adult audience. “Hetty” has a short run through June 26th, so check it out before it heads back across the pond!