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

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

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