STAGE REVIEW: Underdog – The Other Other Brontë @ Northern Stage, Newcastle (12.06.24) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: L-R Rhiannon Clements as Anne, Gemma Whelan as Charlotte, Adele James as Emily

The no expense spared production of Underdog: The Other Other Brontë has proved very popular, and was packed with an appreciative and warm audience, many of whom were also enjoying the wrap around events Northern Stage has programmed.

The colourful grasses and gorgeous moor stage sets the scene with a very Brontë feel, with Charlotte (played superbly by Gemma Whelan) introducing herself and the story, dressed in bright red, standing astride the mound of moor – so far so expected. However this setting soon gives way to darker domestic scenes, with the moor set rising to show its underbelly and roots – a theme which is prevalent in the piece, which explores a darker side to the sisterly relationship, touching on ownership, ambition and legacy, most importantly who controls this.

The central performances are strong and engaging with Anne played by Rhiannon Clements and Emily by Adele James bringing the three different sisters to life. Despite it being called the other other Brontë, the story is led by Charlotte, playing with our perceptions of how the sisters are seen – in this we see the relationships and story through Charlotte’s lens – and we never know how true this is – are we really seeing Anne as she was, or just as Charlotte wants to see her?

The ensemble cast work well together and the play is dotted with moments of theatricality – Charlotte playing at being a man, critics with smoking pipes on their top hats, and great use of the revolve staging. A stand out moment is a funny set piece where the ensemble creates a very slow moving horse and carriage, and there are knowing looks and direct address to the audience throughout.

It’s a modern piece, quick witted and pacily directed by Natalie Ibu, keeping the audience engaged throughout, despite its long running time. There’s a lot of swearing, modern use of language and banter which works well in the light hearted moments – and the piece is fun. The humour and pace for me prevented a deep emotional impact, and the harsh moments of betrayal and exploration of the nature of familial relationships, as well as the violence and turmoil surrounding Branwell Brontë (jauntily portrayed by James Phoon) are less hard hitting as a result. The design by Grace Smart is atmospheric and clever and despite Charlotte being unsympathetic at best, Whelan’s performance really pulls the piece together – reader, we know who is the most quotable. Emily is given short shrift, and the theme of death which hangs over the family, gives way to explorations of what it means to be an author, your voice and how you use it, finding your own space and meaning, both professionally and personally and protection versus control.

Was Anne an ‘angel’, a pious and quiet peace-keeper with a stutter?! We are no closer to knowing, but after seeing this I went straight to the bookstore and bought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë – so perhaps the final victory does go to the other other Brontë. The show runs until Saturday 22nd June so you still have time to see it, and I recommend that you do. 

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