Wasted presented by Southwark Playhouse, #SouthwarkStayhouse
What Is It?
A rock musical about the Brontes.
What Is It About?
The Bronte siblings from childhood to death, as they attempt to follow their artistic - and romantic - ambitions. There is an inherent conceptual problem in the choice to show us everything, in chronological order. It makes it plodding, and unclear why we’re being told this story. This production chooses to emphasise that these were women (and a man, although poor Branwell is a bit of dead weight) who defied the roles allocated to them. It then allows the rock musical form to do all of the heavy lifting in making this point, and is otherwise dramaturgically lazy in organising the narrative in a way which encourages us to recognise the Brontes as the pioneers they were, rather than the mewling children this production makes them out to be.
How Did It Make Me Feel?
The first 20 minutes or so are spent with the four siblings howling about how they’re ‘stuck in Howarth’, which is confusing as Howarth seems great; they have microphones and a rock band and are a few degrees away from a slut-drop. I jest, but this production takes far too long to give us any sense of who these people are as individuals and therefore why we should feel any inclination to take them out of Yorkshire and let them loose on the rest of the world. Yes, the Brontes are famous, but if you’re going to make us bed down with them for a couple of hours, then you need to let us see them as people rather than a historical movement. Once a more introspective tone kicks in, the musical finally feels like it’s trying to tell us a story; there’s a tender duet between Charlotte and Bramwell about their respective broken hearts, and an evocative, albeit brief, scene when Charlotte and Anne take a train to the seaside.
The strongest song by a Yorkshire mile is the one where Charlotte writes her masterpiece (it’s also preceded by one of the show’s best lines: ‘Fuck off, I’m writing Jane Eyre’). The song works because it’s active - Charlotte is discovering her story in the moment, and the writing of the novel comes, in the way it’s told in this production, as a direct emotional response to her sense of injustice at her first book being turned down by a publisher. Many of the songs are good fun and others beautiful, but they tend to be far more expositional and therefore static, so it feels like we’re being presented with a musical concept rather than a narrative.
Cultural portrayals of the Brontes often resort to giving them capsule personalities, which here they don’t escape. Poor Anne, portrayed as the daffy child. Poor Branwell, presented here neither as an equal character, worthy of investing in, nor an oppositional force. (There’s also a bizarre posthumous debrief from Branwell in which he and Charlotte have an inflammatory argument about the privileges afforded to him due to his gender, despite their relationship having been blandly genial up until that point.) And poor, poor Emily, who is done a major disservice in this production by being characterised somewhere in between a werewolf and Kate Bush on coke. I found her descent into something akin to depression a truly distasteful depiction of poor mental health. I don’t mean to overlook the fact that this has clearly been written with a sense of fun rather than reverence, and musicals are necessarily larger - and more superficial - than life, but the story arc asks us for an emotional investment which the characters simply don’t earn.
Charlotte gets off the best; it initially seems she might be relegated to a dull narrator’s role as ‘the sensible one’, but Natasha J. Barnes’ fierce and intelligently sensual portrayal lifts her into somebody who we can conceivably believe is capable of writing a work of fiction still read 200 years later. It’s her emotional journey which ultimately succeeds in hooking us in the second half; it’s a shame that the production doesn’t seem to have worked out its own story earlier.
I haven’t given this a star rating, as it feels pointless so long after the original production, and it doesn’t seem fair given I was viewing it through a medium it wasn’t designed for. The show divided critics at the time; it garnered a crop of 4 star reviews as well as a thudding 1 star from The Times. I can imagine there are generational factors at play. Yet I wonder whether the show’s battering-ram depiction of Emily and, by implication, mental health, would thin that divide now. Either way, I reckon that the less respect you have for the Brontes before you watch this, the more you’ll enjoy it.
Grace AK x
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