LM Montgomery's feisty, red-headed heroine has delighted generations and now, courtesy of Novel Theatre, the story of the dreamy orphan comes to the stage in a delightful new adaptation by Emma Reeves. The company's last production was Little Women which is still running in the West End, but this new show far surpasses it both in terms of the warmth it generates and the strength of the ensemble: it possesses real 'scope for the imagination' as Anne Shirley herself might say.
In 1986 what can only be described as the definitive version of the Anne story was filmed for Canadian TV with the superb Megan Follows in the title role. It's a very hard act to follow but one is paying the highest compliment to say that this production (and its lead, Ruth Gibson, in particular) manage to hold its own very successfully indeed. Gibson is quite wonderful as the vividly imaginative ' Anne with an E' whose arrival at Green Gables brings first drama and, slowly, love into the quiet lives of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. She captures all the exuberance and sensitivity of Anne's character perfectly, making her emotional voyage from lonely orphan to local heroine totally engrossing. David Baron and Jenny Lee are equally impressive as the Cuthberts- Baron bringing a quiet, endearing dignity to the kindly Matthew and Lee making Marilla's soft heart more transparent than is usually portrayed.
Emma Reeves has devised this version of Anne of Green Gables with a contemporary counterpoint serving as a neat parallel to Anne's story. Modern schoolgirl Katie escapes her lonely life by empathising with Anne, their stories becoming intertwined. It's Anne's mirror friend from the books given a flesh and blood identity. As a device it works well enough but the moments when Matthew and Marilla suddenly transpose into latter-day caretaker and cleaner in Katie's life jar a little unlike the musical refrain of "Orphan Girl" which enhances the play.The use of the class blackboard as a scene-setter is excellent though, as is the rest of Rachel Payne's intimate set which recreates the cosy appeal of Green Gables juxtaposed with a modern schoolroom.
Deftly directed, beautifully played by all, here's a childhood fable to treasure; a tale as heartwarming as this surely embodying the Christmas spirit better than any panto.