The Lowry Theatre; Monday 10th April 2017.
Just south of Manchester city centre, hidden away in the backstreets of the sprawling university campus, a rather odd- and dreary-looking drinking establishment hides among the steel and glass undergrowth, trapped in the shadows of the stern and imposing university departments that surround it.
The Salutation Tavern is a small brick building that time appears to have forgotten, given the surroundings it is a highly improbable survivor from Victorian-era Britain.
Today, it is likely to be the scene of drunken and regrettable student misadventure, but, incredibly, this still-living Mancunian relic holds a very special and unexpected place in English cultural history – this was the site where, in 1846, a caring and dutiful daughter from a small village in rural Yorkshire humbly took up temporary lodgings with her father whilst he underwent the trauma of cataract surgery – that lady was Charlotte Bronte and The Salutation is now lauded as the place where she first began work on what went on to become one of English literature’s most celebrated masterpieces: Jane Eyre.
Following a well-received opening in London, Director Sally Cookson’s adaptation begins the rest of its nationwide tour on the main Lyric stage in Salford’s Lowry theatre. Like Bronte’s novel, this performance is long: more than 3 hours. But the action is continuous and just intense enough to leave the audience exhilarated and impressed, and to begrudgingly concede that the aches and pains of an extended period of physical incarceration are worth it. Being a staple crop of the English educational system, it is highly likely that most of the audience would have read the book at some point in their lives, but even for those who already know the plot, this performance has much value to add.
In theory, this is an odd mixture of several different performance styles: is it a play, is it a musical, there seems to be a (stereotypically large) lady singing as if she’s in an opera, there’s a full band on stage who look like they’re regulars in The Salutation, isn’t this, therefore, also a concert? And the mixture of styles is extended to also become a mixing of content: Gnarls Barkeley’s 2006 chart-topping hit “Crazy” makes an unexpected but perfectly contextually-valid appearance.
A review of the April 10th performance would not be complete without mentioning the disastrous technical failure after 30 mins, which quite literally bought the curtain down on the performance. Sally Cookson herself eventually appeared with a microphone to announce that there had been a power surge and that frantic efforts were being made to recover the situation. After a ~15 min delay the performance resumed, though the rest of it was still littered with several noticeable lighting and sounds faults.
It is so difficult to not be infuriated by what happened. Cookson herself said during the interruption that she wanted it fixed so that the audience could appreciate the show properly. And she’s right: the performing cast didn’t put a foot wrong, yet the night was horribly tarnished by the incompetence of the Lowry’s technical staff in failing to properly prepare, test and adequately risk-assess their equipment, and even failing to rehearse and therefore perfect the timing and sequencing with which to turn microphones on and off.
The tale of Jane Eyre is a tale of her struggles through life, her bold strength in the face of injustice and hardship, her impressive bounce-back-ability; set against the presumed harshness of life in 19th century England, these qualities make for a great story of human spiritual triumph that will always appeal. But while Jane Eyre is a sensational book, does that mean that it will also make a great theatrical performance?
In this case, the answer is a definite yes. This is too good to miss as an evening’s entertainment, there’s plenty to see here, even if you think you already know what this is about. This is one of those nights where you squirm into a slightly more comfortable position in your seat and ask: “Can you tell me that story again please ……”