Little Women review – Lyric Theatre, Belfast ★★★★☆

Production image. Photo: Carrie Davenport Photography

Review by Mark Quinn

The Lyric Theatre’s latest production promises to breathe new life into Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical classic. With memories of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film looming large (not to mention six previous film adaptations and countless stage and television productions), it becomes harder to see where new riches can be found in this familiar text.

For the uninitiated (of which there are surely few) Little Women follows the March sisters; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as they navigate their transitions from childhood to womanhood, against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The opportunities of marriage and ambitions collide. With a father packed off as a volunteer chaplain to the Union Army, and genteel poverty all but ignored by their mother, the girls have more to contend with than you may find in your average coming-of-age tale.

Most recently impressing on the Lyric stage in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Marty Breen is effortless as Jo March, the de facto lead of the quartet. Breen distils Jo’s complexities; selfishness, outspokenness, vigilance, love. The physicality was an unexpected delight, from the artless sword fighting and dancing to the mimicking of Aunt March, played with scene-stealing acidity by Allison Harding, Breen deftly proves why so many claim Jo as their literary heroine.

Production image. Photo: Carrie Davenport Photography

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, with the New England accent flowing naturally and respectfully from each player. Amongst the supporting stand-outs is Tara Cush who transforms Amy from the irksome youngest March girl to a thoughtful and self-assured woman, and raises an instant titter with each malapropism or tantrum.

Each of the March girls has their moment to shine. Ruby Campbell balances the superficiality and stoicism of eldest sister Meg and Maura Bird breaks through the binds of the less developed Beth, in heartbreaking scenes with her sisters and matriarch ‘Marmee’ March, performed with fortitude and fondness by Jo Donnelly. The male roles, rightfully, play second fiddle, but Cillian Lenaghan makes for an especially charming Laurie.

The March residence is the set’s centrepiece with the quasi-dollhouse a real place of play as the sisters act out one of Jo’s dramatisations in the opening act. The simple structure allows room for curtains and walls to float in, representing more luxurious dwellings, each cleverly framed like Amy’s paintings may one day be.

Production image. Photo: Carrie Davenport Photography

With a few minor edits to the classic, Anne-Marie Casey’s script bounces along briskly, oscillating between quick-fire quips and moments of poignancy. A reprisal of the opening scene towards the end highlights the preciousness of life and sets the play up for a heart-warming finale emphasising the power of endurance.

As the adaption comes to its conclusion, and the snowdrops begin to fall on stage, the final frame is as comforting and filling as Christmas dinner. Emily Foran’s direction of a well-worn story more than justifies its purpose.

Little Women is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 2 March 2024