Christmas time, mistletoe and … well, you know how it goes. Simon
Callow’s doing Dickens and Skye Crawford and Samuel Julyan have
brought us this cosy, big skirted musical adaptation of Louisa M
Alcott’s perennial favourite Little Women.
It’s not the
Broadway musical, which had a (really quite) brief run a few years
ago, but a new version by Peter Layton and Lionel Segal currently
occupying the spacious Lost Theatre in Stockwell.
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
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
Little Women, like poor Beth, has signs of life, but for how long?