The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Octagon Theatre; Tuesday 11th April 2017.

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Bored residents are far too annoying and nosey when new neighbours move in!! The End.

There’s a fine art to telling a story well, and the above one-line summary is definitely not it. Thankfully, Anne Bronte’s classic novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall delivers a far more eloquent and picturesque articulation of the above theme. But even then, from a story-telling point of view, it’s not formed in quite as pleasing and agreeable a structure as her older sister Charlotte’s writing; and neither Anne nor Charlotte quite manage to hit the nail on the head in the way that Emily does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew and Director Elizabeth Newman take up the story-telling challenge that is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at Bolton’s Octagon theatre, moving on from an opening run in York. Do writer and director manage to hit the right story-telling notes induced by reading the book? Not quite.

The show isn’t bad as such, but crucially there’s nothing about it to love and adore, or be hugely impressed by. It’s all done perfectly well and professionally but there’s no outstanding element, nothing to particularly tell others about. The performance was very prim and proper and well presented – just like the stuffy old 19th century establishment / authority characters depicted in the novel. But the whole theme of this story is one of a wronged woman’s stylish and intelligent rebellion against oppressive conservatism – yet that sense of euphoric triumph over unacceptable injustice never emerges properly.

The performers do a perfectly good job, but they are clearly restricted by having to recite line after line verbatim from the novel. Not only does that make for an unnecessarily long performance, it also deprives the audience of  truly feeling the power of the story line. The performers end up too close to delivering a recital, instead of delivering an acting performance.

As a result, we never truly feel the thriller / mystery aspect when the mysterious new tenant moves into Wildfell Hall; we never feel the burning lust and passion that might drive a woman to allow her admirer to read her very personal diary; only when we witness the brutality that brought her to Wildfell Hall in the first place do we finally feel what we’re meant to.

Two other factors affected the night: firstly the (unacceptably) restricted views and cramped confinement on the upper tiers of The Octagon – far worse an ordeal than the restricted sections of most other theatres – the theatre management should seriously consider allowing the audience to move to the lower level on nights which fail to sell out. Secondly, the set was too sparse and uninspiring, a dull grey affair with no particularly innovative use of lighting/sound to enhance the performance and create a mood and ambience – again, it wasn’t bad and didn’t detract from the whole experience but then it added very little extra.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at The Octagon is a reasonable and perfectly agreeable production. But right now, thanks to the twin fortunes of synchronous scheduling and close geographic proximity, it would be advisable to instead make the trip to Manchester to see director Sally Cookson’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – a performance that really does add something extra.

So, for now, poor Anne will sadly have to take a back seat in the shadows and let her older sister show Greater Manchester how it should be done– and probably not for the first time either.

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