Passionate and vibrant new stage version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre opens at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre

Think of the Brontes and images of stormy, windswept, rain-drenched moors, consumptive characters and passionate lovers spring to mind.

By Sue Wilkinson
Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 8:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 9:36 am
Nia Gandhi, Sarah Groarke and Zoe West in Jane Eyre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Nia Gandhi, Sarah Groarke and Zoe West in Jane Eyre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

That is as true of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as it is of her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights – and it is all laid out on a bare Stephen Joseph Theatre stage.

With the aid of a minimum of props and set, a cast of six brings the love story between landowner and the not-so handsome Edward Rochester and governess, plain Jane Eyre from the page to the stage.

That is not my disparaging descriptions of the characters but the opinions of themselves and each other.

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The set is not the only thing pared down about the new adaptation of the classic novel.

READ what the cast thinks of being in Jane Eyre here

Director Zoe Waterman and Chris Bush, who has adapted the book for the stage, ensure the plot is moved on a pace – with none of the eulogising, endless internal soul-searching, religious zealotry and debate and musings on the lot of women and their lack of equality in the early 19th century which bulk out the book’s central love story.

There are some things – including the fates of minor characters – that fall by the wayside.

The themes are not diminished by the slimmed down narrative – quite the opposite. Once literary flourishes are cast aside, they shine through and are shouted out.

The verbal sparring between the feisty Jane and dour Rochester particularly benefits – sparks are allowed to fly between Eleanor Sutton as the heroine and Sam Jenkins-Shaw as the troubled hero.

They are the two actors who play only one role – though Sutton doubles briefly as the raving first Mrs Rochester as though she is presenting her alto-ego – a brief portrait of what she would be like if not constrained by the stays which tightly wrapped 19th-century woman.

Jenkins-Shaw is a brooding, stalking and sympathetic presence every inch the equal of Sutton’s portayal of the fierce, independent, free-thinking Jane.

From the perspective of the 21st century, it is easy to question Bronte’s notion of equality and female emancipation.

She was writing as part of the fight for women’s rights – not as one for whom some equality has been hard won and is now fiercely defended and actively progressed.

The other four cast members – Tomi Ogbaro, Nia Ghandi, Zoe West and Sarah Groarke – delightfully and deftly multi-role as all the other main characters including Rochester’s housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, his ward Adele and Mason and St John.

The six actors are also all musicians and it is Simon Slater’s music and songs which add vibrancy and pace to the play – at times the production comes close to nothern folk opera akin to Howard Goddall’s The Hired Man.

Though the stage is bare, brown boards, there is vibrancy, bursts of colour and passion in the fast-moving, touching and thought-provoking, perfectly presented ensemble piece.

The new adaptation is a co-production with the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

It runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until Saturday April 30.

It will then be performed at the New Vic from Wednesday May 4 to Saturday May 28.

Tickets for the show at the Stephen Joseph, priced from £10, are available from the box office on 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com

Tickets for the show at the New Vic are available from the box office on 01782 717 962 and online at newvictheatre.org.uk