"Gothic character study of Brontës"
by Peter Carrington for remotegoat on 12/10/13

Behind the Garden Wall is a claustrophobic, intense, gloomy study of the Brontë’s, their lives and seeks the source of their inspiration.

This is a studio piece so still rough around the edges, but for such gothic subject matter that is apt. The audience enters past the cast in situ as tableaus of the family which are often re-framed during the play. The play opens with poetic lines from each of the siblings, while Patrick Brontë (a frail yet patriarchal Marcus McMahon) gives biographical detail about how they came to live in a parsonage Behind the Garden Wall from his desire to shelter them from the strife of the world.
Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell seek to find a place in the world, having been separate from it for so long, after the deaths of their two elder sisters. Here we get to the beating heart of the piece, where the portrayal of each of the siblings is unique and convincing. India Martin as Charlotte draws in the audience with a strong performance of sincerity, earnestness and unrequited desire. Amy Christina Murray bares the heart and soul of Emily on stage, her every move is shot through with Emily’s passion, creativity and angst. In contrast to her is the starkly-lit, Ruby Padwick whose spiritual Anne holds tension and worry. Jack Smithson pounds the stage as Branwell, his melancholia hovering like a cloud wherever he goes. The direction uses the intimate space well and haunts the audience; strong eye contact pulls the audience roughly into the play and there are good moments where the action pauses; where the audience can see the emotions play across the faces of the characters, providing both a breather from the drama and a stretching of tension. Some may find that the subject is too heavy and gothic without much relief but fans of the Brontë’s work will expect this and enjoy the way Farren Morgan has woven details from their lives and novels into the tale.

The lighting design expands and contracts the space, giving sharp lines, then painting with broad strokes to create effects such as the looming shadow of Branwell over the family’s fortunes. It is an impressive design, so essential to such a small space. Use of projection, while giving some more flair to some scenes felt either underused or unnecessary. Indeed its absence from the second act went unnoticed. But being a studio piece, one forgives these rough edges.

The play walks a confident line between the heavy drama of the lives of the Brontë’s and their work avoiding collapsing into melodrama. However, because the feelings hang so heavy, the biographical detail sometimes gets lost. While the characters and their emotions are well expressed and understood by the audience, a sense of wider context beyond the garden wall and the theatre is unexplored. It is a powerful script that draws in everyone in the space through strong performances from all the cast and good design; it will be interesting to see what they do next.

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