The first thing that anyone who read Charlotte Brontë’s proto-feminist romance at a formative age will tell you about the story is the red room. There’s something about this baroque bedroom where the infant Jane is sent as punishment that haunts the imagination. Its mahogany pillars, red damask curtains and crimson bedding make her solitary confinement all the more cruel.
In truth, the room occupies only half a dozen pages of the 1847 novel, much as it is just one incident among many in the Octagon’s lively adaptation. Yet its gothic terror seems to bubble up from the depths of Amanda Stoodley’s skeletal set. Not only do Chris Davey’s lights flare through the grating beneath the feet of the young Jane (a ferocious Emma Catterall the day I saw it), but the later scenes involving the deranged Bertha Mason (Leah Walker cackling in the gantry above our heads) have the same hellish hue. Red is also the colour of Bertha’s dress.
It’s as if the road to emancipation needs Jane not only to find emotional, intellectual and financial independence, but also to escape the nightmare realm of primitive terrors. In this way, Jane Eyre is a tale that looks forward to resistance even as it looks back to an age of superstition.
In the title role of Elizabeth Newman’s pared-back production, Jessica Baglow captures the plain-speaking pragmatism of a woman with little on her side but righteous determination. In her prim turquoise frock and pinned-back hair, she wins us over not with flattery or frivolity but integrity and intelligence. It’s a moot point, though, whether Michael Peavoy, as her would-be lover Rochester, tips too far to the morose side of taciturn; one minute he seems attractively moody, the next plain surly. You end up willing him and Jane to get together even while doubting the wisdom of the match.
The adaptation by Janys Chambers and Lorna French skips through the novel with a light and lucid touch, gaining in wry humour and pace what it loses in emotional intensity. Unburdened by heavy scenery, the cast take on a brisk catalogue of supporting roles – some a better fit than others – helping to maintain a seamless flow from scene to scene to create a gripping and good-hearted production.
- At the Octagon, Bolton, until 10 February.