Little in name, but not in nature

16 November 2021

A fresh look at Little Women from a queer perspective maintains the Louisa May Alcott classic’s strengths and takes it effortlessly from the particular to the universal, writes a mightily impressed David Zampatti.

Little Women, Sally Davies (after Louisa May Alcott) ·
The Blue Room Theatre November, 9 November 2021 ·

I’ve broken my own rule never to read other reviews of a piece before I write my own.

I’m only sort of cheating, though, because the review in question was Anthony Lane’s piece in The New Yorker on Greta Gerwig’s 2018 screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s epochal American standard, Little Women, now presented at The Blue Room Theatre in a stage adaptation by local playwright Sally Davies.

It might seem foolhardy to attempt to cram the epic, 759-page, story of the March family into the tiny Blue Room stage in 80-odd minutes, but Davies, her co-director Melanie Julien-Martial and their exemplary team have done it with remarkable facility.

What’s more they’ve made two very audacious thematic and casting decisions – to tell it as a queer story, with an all-female, non-white cast – and they accomplish it without the slightest awkwardness or diminution of the purposes and values of the original.

Davies and Julien-Martial have expanded and strengthened Little Women’s themes of the truth of love, determination and fortitude, from its very specific time and place – Concord, Massachusetts, New York and Paris during and immediately after the American Civil War – to encompass a more general sense of the world of women, the ties that bind them and the furious strength and courage demanded to take the places they deserve.

This production is neither daunted by Little Women’s provenance or self-conscious about the way they’ve treated it. In practical terms the only real difference from the original is the change of gender of Laurie/“Teddy” (Ramiah Alcantara) from male to female, which is made without signposting or affectation.

That done, the narrative is allowed to take its course naturally, and completely in harmony with Alcott’s original. The maturity and confidence this shows is refreshing and admirable.

And this is a very fine production. The set and costume designs by Eilish Campbell are lush and convincing (the wardrobes of MLC and St Mary’s, The G & A Society and the WA Screen Academy have been stripped bare of crinolines and furbelows for the occasion), lit flawlessly by Rhiannon Petersen.

And then there’s Mr Lui. All the marvels Joe Lui has performed as a writer and director, musician, lighting and sound designer can’t quite prepare you for the exquisite original compositions that give Little Women the rhythm and beauty of a waltz.

Its roots are deep in the bloodied soil of Civil War America (there’s an obvious nod to Jay Unger’s “Ashokan Farewell”, which, despite its relatively recent composition, has become the unofficial anthem of that awful conflict), with sepia washes of Stephen Foster and Appalachian folk music. Taking those kinds of melodies to “something big and modern and campy” (Lui’s words), it’s the most evocative original soundtrack to a West Australian play since Rachael Dease’s It’s Dark Outside nearly a decade ago.

Alcantara is a perfectly-pitched Laurie, and Cezera Critti-Schnaars as the brilliant, wilful Jo, Jess Nyanda Moyle as the strong, sensible eldest sibling Meg, Amber Kitney as the yearning, romantic Amy and Mani Mae Gomes as the sweet, tragic Beth play perfectly together, capturing the emotional unity of the sisters with beautiful warmth and fidelity.

There’s one revelatory performance, and that’s Gomes’s Beth. It’s hard to play a character stricken with an infirmity that makes her fade away. “The tide has turned and is going out – it goes out slowly, but it can’t be stopped,” she says.

But I can’t imagine Beth’s essential goodness, her sad understanding, performed better than Gomes has.

When she leaves the world – and, in a brilliant touch – the stage, the effect makes you gasp inside.

It’s one little, wonderful moment in a triumph of a play that’s far from little.

Little Women continues at The Blue Room Theatre until 27 November 2021.

Pictured top are Cezera Critti-Schnaars and Mani Mae Gomes. Photo: Tashi Hall

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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