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Little Women review: crowd-pleaser kicks off Lyric’s 2024 spring season

Theatre: Anne-Marie Casey’s production wraps itself around audience like comforting, hand-quilted blanket

Little Women

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Home is where the heart is. That’s the dominant message of Anne-Marie Casey’s stage adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, in a production that wraps itself around an audience like a comforting, hand-quilted blanket.

Casey deals contextually with the Civil War politics rampaging across the United States and the ensuing poverty, bereavement and domestic disruption imposed upon a close-knit New England community. The very nature of the original book demands that it is the gender politics of the time that should come centre stage, a tack consciously and effectively followed by director Emily Foran and her creative team.

This is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser with which to kick off the Lyric’s 2024 spring season, but the novel’s centuries-long popularity and early sortie into the vexed subject of female emancipation place a certain degree of responsibility on the shoulders of Foran, here making her directorial debut on the theatre’s main stage.

There is no avoiding Alcott’s parallel focus on wifely duty and deference to the male hierarchy, contemporary themes that find considerably less favour in today’s more egalitarian world. The four March sisters represent a broad cross-section of hopes and ambitions. Pretty, dependable Meg (Ruby Campbell) yearns for a happy marriage and a clutch of children; spoilt, artistic Amy (Tara Cush) sets her sights on a rich husband to support her creative aspirations; undemanding Beth (Maura Bird) briefly lights up the household with her modest preoccupations with music and charitable deeds; headstrong Jo (an exceptionally engaging Marty Breen), the beating heart of the story, has no time for “stupid men” or “romantic rubbish” and envisages no other future for herself than as a writer.


This is a presentation mercifully free of chintz, flounces, gingham and apple pie. Forensic research and creative collaboration have gone into the overall look of the piece, framed by Stuart Robinson’s simple, harmonious soundscape. Set and costume designers Tracey Lindsay and Gillian Lennox have delivered Foran’s practical, undiluted interpretation of thrifty, mutually supportive sisterhood, with visuals that look and feel genuinely authentic.

Within a plainly furnished clapboard house, and in the absence of her husband, a serving Union army chaplain, Jo Donnelly’s brisk, no-nonsense Marmee creates a safe refuge for her little women, a place where they may dream their dreams and work hard to achieve them. The busy comings and goings of this female-led ensemble, often glimpsed in silhouette, is cleverly choreographed and punctuated by the sternly humorous interventions of Allison Harding’s imperious Aunt March.

On opening night, the early episodes feel a little frantic, but the pace settles after the acceptance into the family circle of Cillian Lenaghan’s affluent, raffish Laurie, rejected in adolescence by Jo only to be rescued by Amy from drunken debauchery in Paris. In the more layered and affecting second act, Shaun Blaney and Ash Rizi add real value to their respective roles as the earnest tutor John Brooke and German professor Friedrich Behr, emerging from different worlds to provide Meg and Jo with the emotional, intellectual and cultural satisfaction each demands from life.

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

Jane Coyle

Jane Coyle is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture