*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Theatre review: Underdog: The other other Brontë by Sarah Gordon (National Theatre, Northern Stage)

by
26 April 2024

Simon Walsh reviews a play about rivalry among the Brontës

© Isha Shah

Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë), and Adele James (Emily Brontë) in Underdog: The other other Brontë at the National Theatre

Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë), and Adele James (Emily Brontë) in Underdog: The other other Brontë at the National T...

SIBLING rivalry is one of the oldest tales going, but often about brothers. Sarah Gordon’s new play, Underdog: The other other Brontë, spins that on its head and gives us three sisters — and not just any sisters: the fiercely talented Brontë girls. The premise is more than simple sisterhood, and subtitled The other other Brontë — referring to Anne, author of Agnes Gray and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

In part, this piece seeks to rehabilitate Anne from the shadow of her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. On the whole, it does this, although little is known about Anne, and much of her posthumous reputation was controlled by the dominant and surviving Charlotte. All three sisters wrote their first novel at the same time in the intense atmosphere of the parsonage at Haworth, their childhood home. They had plundered their father’s domestic library and imbibed deeply of the surrounding Yorkshire moors. The 1846 drafts by Anne and Emily were immediately accepted; Charlotte’s was rejected.

Two twists emerge. The first is the competition between the sisters, and Gemma Whelan’s feisty portrayal of Charlotte is the least sympathetic. She begins the show, wandering through the stalls in a flame-red dress, hectoring the audience in flat vowels with questions over their favourite Brontë novel. One chap got sat on. She is the colossus — of both this play and the Brontë legacy. What follows tries to unpick that somewhat.

The second twist is that, at first, the sisters were published under a male pseudonym as the Bell brothers. Brontë loyalists will know this, but not everyone. Although they were unmasked, and their real identity became known, it was as much to do — so this play says — with Charlotte’s wanting due recognition for her own work. Publishing was a male-dominated world, and the sisters were something of a novelty. Sadly, their early deaths ended arguably one of the brightest of family talents in the Victorian era. The battle-of-the-sexes thing is a little clumsily done, yet also amusing. There’s a knowingness to this play. “We may have died young, but we still have an amazing reputation,” the sisters seem to say.

The problem is Charlotte. Whelan plays her convincingly as gobby and domineering, and a domestic bully. At times, the vulnerability and fragility emerge, but rarely. Adele James’s sweet, floaty Emily is a lot more appealing, as is the gentle Anne of Rhiannon Clements. They are much nicer and not developed enough; how could they be, given that it’s the Charlotte Show and they both expired so soon? Unforgivably, Charlotte suppressed Anne’s Wildfell Hall after her death; the limelight had to be hers alone.

The supporting cast are all men (nothing gender-blind here) and match up energetically. James Phoon plays the useless drunkard-brother, Branwell. Adam Donaldson and Kwaku Mills join Nick Blakely with comical results: one moment, a stagecoach complete with clopping horse; another, nasty patrician publishers in hats and coats with cigars. Blakely is a particular highlight in skirt roles such as Mrs Ingham of Mirfield, who brings Anne in as a governess, and then Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the first biography of Charlotte, but didn’t seem to get it.

Everything is beautifully staged in Fran Miller’s production. Natalie Ibu’s witty direction brings a great deal of fun, including a gentlemen’s club turning into a nightclub. Grace Smart’s set and costumes are striking, with Zoe Spurr’s lights creating much intimacy and ambience. But it is difficult to know for whom this piece is intended. It is probably not for literary buffs; and the sight of women oppressing other women feels counter-narrative, which could be the point after all.


Underdog is at the Dorfman Theatre, the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 25 May, then Northern Stage, Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, 7-22 June. nationaltheatre.org.uk; northernstage.co.uk

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)