Matt Costain as Jem and Phoebe Thomas as Hetty
Matt Costain as Jem and Phoebe Thomas as Hetty
© Donald Cooper

Hetty Feather is one of children's author Jacqueline Wilson's most popular books. In the Dickensian story of a lost girl restoring her family connections after running away to join the circus, it has an obvious theatrical potential.

Much of that is realised in Emma Reeves's deft distillation of nearly four hundred pages and in Sally Cookson's ingratiating and often very enjoyable production. Running at nearly two-and-a-half hours, many of the seven-to-nine age group of girls at whom the show is targeted remain rapt from start to finish; younger children (and older) might fidget more.

I certainly did. This is partly to do with the fact that the story turns back on itself when the essential points have been made. Hetty, eagerly played by Phoebe Thomas, is taken into the home for foundlings twice. Second time round, it's more gruesome, with her long red hair lopped off while she hangs upside down on a trapeze, and there's harsher discipline.

But her spirit is unquenched, especially after she's participated in Madame Adeline's equestrian circus show, the horses nicely impersonated by actors with fluffy tails and pink feathers. There are six actors and two musicians – Alex Heane and Luke Potter – who supply a steady stream of music hall ditties and marching songs, playing us in at the start like a pair of top-hatted buskers.

Nikki Warwick is an exotic and highly flexible Madame Adeline, Paul Mundell and Isaac Stanmore Hetty's brothers, and they all double up – with Matt Costain (a tart, pinched matron) and Sarah Goddard (nice and mumsy) as acrobats, other foundlings, other adults.

There's something Kneehigh-lite about it all, though, not least because of strong memories of Kneehigh's brilliant 2006 adaptation of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, with another aerialist heroine, Fevvers (no relation of Hetty?), and a much darker, more grown-up scenario.

Still, that won't concern eight-year-old girls, and Katie Sykes's small top design of drapes, planks, ladders and ropes conjures the right atmospheric mixture of playground high jinks and circus adventure. And, apart from the vitality of Benji Bower's music, there's a lovely running away chorus of the traditional favourite "Over the Fields and Far Away."