Underdog: The Other Other Brontë review – National Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Gemma Whelan as Charlotte Brontë. Photo: Isha Shah

‘What’s your favourite Brontë novel?’ Gemma Whelan, in character as the brash Charlotte Brontë, asks me as the play begins. Like a rabbit in the headlights and struggling to think of anything else, I offer up ‘Jane Eyre’. Other audience members get the same treatment, each offering the same answer in turn – occasionally prompted by a whisper in their ear from a companion. Sorry Emily, no mention of Wuthering Heights tonight.

The cocky Charlotte takes delight in this victory over her siblings before asking us to forgive any mistakes in her account of three sisters who defied all odds to become successful authors at a time when literature was a singularly male enterprise. But are these mistakes in her narrative – something of a confession – honest or deliberate failures of memory, misconstruing the truth to absolve herself of her real sins?

Despite how earnest the set-up sounds, Sarah Gordon’s uber-meta new play, winner of the 2020 Nick Darke Award, is anything but. Played for irreverent laughs in Natalie Ibu’s production, this is a wild romp that toes the line between the sober and the surreal as the sweary Brontë sisters ‘fuck’, ‘arsehole’, ‘dick’ and ‘bollocks’ their way through their interactions before pulling on our heartstrings in the closing throws.

Adele James (Emily Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë), Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë). Photo: Isha Shah

With money troubles in the family parsonage, Charlotte, Emily (Adele James) and Anne (an excellent Rhiannon Clements), are seeking to bring funds in without belittling their failing, alcoholic brother Branwell (James Phoon). Anne leaves home for a career as a governess and, with Charlotte dreaming of literary stardom, Charlotte and Emily head to Belgium to secretly learn the writer’s craft.

With failures on both sides, Anne recasts her experiences as a Governess in novel form, while Charlotte finishes her own tome before the pair convince Emily to do the same. Together they decide to take male pseudonyms so that their attempts to have their works published can be judged equally with the work of men. The rest, as they say, is history – although Gordon takes incredible artistic licence in its telling.

Acting as a reclamation of Anne’s reputation, Gordon suggests her sidelining was a result of Charlotte deliberately stifling her younger sister’s work following her early death, with the vain Charlotte driven by jealousy over Anne’s talent and beauty. Interestingly, in elevating Anne and focusing on the relationship between Charlotte and Anne, Emily becomes the sidelined sister, with little scope for James to develop the character.

Kwaku Mills (Ensemble), Rhiannon Clements (Anne Brontë), Gemma Whelan (Charlotte Brontë) and Nick Blakeley (Ensemble). Photo: Isha Shah

There is a similar feeling for the piece as a whole. Despite a pacy, entertaining couple of hours, we never truly get under the skin of Charlotte or Anne. There are interesting themes raised only to be immediately dispatched with, and the play briefly questions why one woman must always pull down another to raise herself up – but this too goes unexplored, lost in the family drama and hijinks.

The supporting characters are played by an ensemble of male actors – and there is good work among them. Most notable is Nick Blakeley, who hilariously employs a pair of coconut shells, alongside Grace Smart’s constantly entertaining stage revolve, to evoke a dreary seventeen-hour horse and carriage ride from Yorkshire to London. But the highlight of the production is Whelan, who looks like she’s having the time of her life on the Dorfman stage – and it’s infectious. OK, so we don’t truly get to know the Brontë sisters quite as well as we’d like to, but isn’t it an awful lot of fun.

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë is at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London until 25 May, then Northern Stage, Newcastle from 7 to 22 June.