In Anne of Green Gables, everything depends on the casting of Anne, the red-headed orphan with an imagination that gets her into trouble in the conservative community of Avonlea. Luckily, Novel Theatre has found a completely credible heroine in Ruth Gibson.
Gibson’s Anne is furiously sensitive about her copper hair, wildly melodramatic and vividly poetic, but, if by the interval she has got into more than enough jolly scrapes, Gibson never lets the character slip, never nudges the audience into laughter. Anne inadvertently introduces her best friend to strong liquor, has to apologise for rudeness (throwing herself on her knees in storybook fashion) and whacks the handsomest boy in school on the head with a slate when he calls her “carrot”.
Novel Theatre specialises in adaptation. Emma Reeves has also written a version of Little Women now running at the West End’s Duchess Theatre, which is, to my mind, far less successful. Andrew Loudon, who directs both, uses many of the same techniques in staging L M Montgomery’s early 20th-century Canadian classic - a capella singing, simple staging and a respect for the original - but it feels much livelier.
Such liveliness is achieved despite Reeves having given the story a slightly strained modern framework. Building on the word “asylum” (Anne’s home before she joined the elderly brother and sister Matthew and Marilla), she introduces a parallel with a contemporary east European schoolgirl, bullied and far from home, who finds solace in the book.
The Lilian Baylis, a small studio theatre attached to Sadler’s Wells, is an ideal space for this, the ultimate pubescent girls’ night out. In fact, it’s very much a female evening, with only two men in the cast of nine and women’s education as a running theme. The set, by Rachel Payne, has a schoolroom on one side and a stylised clapboard house atop a grassy hill on the other. The desks and chairs quickly become a boat or station platform as required and the “blackboard” is really a flexible scene-setter.
Sterling work is delivered from a number of the cast, including Joanna Croll as both flirty Ruby and prim Mrs Barry, even if she does hold her baby like a hot water bottle. Jenny Lee as Marilla isn’t quite as sharp as I remember her in the book, but she and David Baron’s Matthew endow their sibling relationship with enough tenderness to make Matthew’s death genuinely moving.
There’s a dearth of new writing for the pre-teen age group. Meanwhile, adult ticket buyers will go for something “safe”, ensuring that another generation is introduced to the considerable pleasures of language, which is what Anne is really all about.
- Heather Neill