Set in Massachusetts at the height of the American Civil War this new British musical wears its heart firmly on its lacy sleeve. Following the fortunes of the four March siblings (headstrong Jo, docile Beth, childish Amy and practical Meg) as their father fights in the South, we see them grow from little girls to the titular little women. Despite their poverty, the indomitable spirit of the girls triumphs and, in time honoured tradition and despite family tragedy, their ineffable goodness sees them right.
Despite skilful direction by Nicola Samer, Little Women is high on saccharine sweetness but low on drama. Peter Layton’s book feels over-faithful, prioritising textual fidelity over narrative and it occasionally lacks subtlety, lurching from scene to scene, relying on heavy exposition to anchor us into the story’s movements. Segal’s music and lyrics are pleasant enough, if unmemorable, and only really take flight during Jo’s vision of the future as “The First Lady of Literature”.
As the determined Jo, Charlotte Newton John holds the piece together. Charmingly gawky, she captures Jo’s conflicts as a 19th-century woman with dreams and shows a grit sadly lacking in the rest of the show. Laura Hope London as the doomed Beth has the strongest voice (the girls outperform the boys here – as they should) and Myra Sands has a ball as cantankerous Aunt March. Elsewhere, the performances range from the broadly comic (Tom Feary-Campbell’s publisher provides most of the evening’s laughs) to the caricatured.
A new musical is a brave endeavour in this climate but Little Women still has some way to go if it wants a further life. Although it has a certain charm, and the book will always have fans, there’s a lot of competition for it out there. However, the cast attack it with gusto and Samer’s detailed direction serves the material well.
Little Women, like poor Beth, has signs of life, but for how long?
- Dan Usztan