‘Heart-breaking and tender in equal measures’: Blackeyed Theatre’s ‘Jane Eyre’

Harriet Clifford
Friday, November 27, 2020

Blackeyed Theatre's production of 'Jane Eyre' is available to watch on demand from today. We review the performance here.

Eleanor Toms is 'particularly impressive' in her many roles
Eleanor Toms is 'particularly impressive' in her many roles

Captured at the Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, on the eve of England’s second lockdown in November, Blackeyed Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, filled with isolation, heartache, and fraught reunions, seemed all the more poignant as I watched it online a few nights ago, the evening before the country’s new tiered system was announced.

Jane’s anguished cry, ‘My heart became a bird with a broken wing, desperate to return to the nest’, is a sentiment with which many audience members watching may identify, longing as they are to embrace a loved one, or return to the comfort of a family home. 

Yet, although dealing with universal themes (now particularly relevant), Nick Lane’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic bildungsroman is far enough removed from our reality to provide two hours’ worth of escapism, combining convincing performances all round with inventive staging, musical accompaniment, and a hint of comedy. 

Directed by Blackeyed’s artistic director Adrian McDougall, Jane Eyre’s cast of five impressively distributes itself across 16 parts, with Kelsey Short in the titular role. Ben Warwick plays Edward Rochester and Mr Brocklehurst, Camilla Samson plays Mrs Fairfax, Bertha Mason, Aunt Reed, and Mary Rivers, while Eleanor Toms plays Blanche Ingram, Georgianna Reed, Helen Burns, Adele Varens, and Diana Rivers. The fifth cast member, Oliver Hamilton, plays St John Rivers, John Reed, Mr Mason, and William. 

Each actor brings their characters to colourful life, with Short perfectly capturing Jane’s heady mix of infallible inner strength and devastating vulnerability. Her kaleidoscopic emotions throughout both Acts are entirely believable, meaning that I felt the cruel rejection she experienced as a child, as well as the soaring love which later grows for Mr Rochester. 

Unlike in the book, I felt that Helen, Jane’s faithful and only friend at Lowood School, was not on stage long enough to be fully developed, meaning that I felt little emotional investment in her illness. Of course, condensing a 500+ page novel into two hours of engaging theatre inevitably leads to some compromises, and most other characters are given enough time to flourish. 

Toms, who plays Helen, is particularly impressive in her versatility, switching deftly between the whining, spoiled Adele, the pompous Blanche Ingram, and the wholesome, bubbly Diana Rivers, among others. Hamilton’s portrayal of St John is a little heavy-handed at times, but this only serves to heighten the awkward earnestness of Mr Rochester’s pious foil. 

Warwick is an effective Rochester, evoking both frustration and sympathy in the viewer, and his personality seems to evolve and shapeshift throughout the performance. I liked the inventiveness of the animals and the props used, with Warwick’s dramatic lean-back over a human ‘bed’ making for a particularly memorable moment. 

The music, directed by Ellie Verkerk, is a welcome addition to the story, bringing vibrancy, enhancing emotion, and momentarily pulling viewers back from the intensity of the plot. Toms’s voice is stunning, sailing out across the auditorium (one would imagine), and encapsulating the haunting ambience of the tale.

Jane Eyre undoubtedly has gothic elements, if not strictly of the gothic genre, and Blackeyed Theatre’s production capitalises on this without turning it into a horror story. There are terrifying moments, piercing screams, building tensions, unsettling creaks, scratching violins, and madness personified, but all is executed without unnecessary melodrama. Emotions are heighted to precisely the right degree, before being brought back down again with musical relief, or a moment of comic sarcasm of Mrs Fairfax or one of the Rivers sisters.

By the time we reach the final moments, both heart-breaking and tender in equal measures, we do feel as though we have collectively reached the climax – ‘we’ being the audience, although now all scattered across towns and cities, and the characters, in whom we have become invested along the way.

Our hearts ache, perhaps more acutely this year, with love, loss, and bittersweet reunion. Even though it provides little comfort, we are reminded that the emotions we are feeling now have been felt before and will be felt again. Our plights are different, and hardly comparable, but spending two hours with Jane Eyre and Blackeyed Theatre one evening soon will remind you that we can never truly be alone.    

Jane Eyre is available to watch online from 27 November for £10 per device. You will have 72 hours to view from the time you start watching. The play is recommended for ages 11+ and runs for approximately 130 minutes.

Book tickets here