'Underdog: The Other Other Brontë' review – this blistering myth-buster hits the wuthering heights

Read our review of Underdog: The Other Other Brontë, starring Gemma Whelan, Rhiannon Clements and Adele James, now in performances at the National Theatre to 25 May.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The ever-enduring yet constantly contended myths surrounding the Brontë sisters are impishly upended in Sarah Gordon’s raucously funny new play for the National Theatre and Northern Stage, which mixes gothic tropes with family drama and astute literary criticism.

Underdog centres on the sibling rivalry between the three aspiring writers: Charlotte, Emily and the titular historically sidelined sister, Anne. Although they are united as women scorned by the establishment, and forced to assume male pseudonyms in order to get their work published, there’s also fierce competition between them.

Gordon brings their story bang up to date with her (still depressingly apt) feminist commentary on how women are forced to battle one another when given such limited space. Anne accuses Charlotte of upstaging her novel (Agnes Grey) with a work also focussed on a powerless governess (Jane Eyre); a squirrelly Charlotte protests that it’s only important this female story is told, not by whom.

There is even, à la Barbie, a moment where the trio pity their brother Branwell for being a fellow victim of the patriarchy – although this seems like an overly generous defence of a feckless, spendthrift drunkard.

It’s the prickly dynamics between the three sisters that really compel: the ambitious but overbearing Charlotte, who claims writing as “her” thing; the hot-tempered yet prolific Emily; and the initially meek Anne who, as portrayed here, actually has the boldest ideas and a passionate social conscience.

Gordon takes the view that Charlotte felt threatened by Anne (who died aged just 29) and so constantly suppressed her. That includes refusing a posthumous reprint of her sister’s extraordinary novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which features a woman leaving her abusive addict husband – a revolutionary act in the mid 19th century.

Gordon’s script is also peppered with cheeky anachronisms and colourful swearing (Robert Southey is a “bellend”; “The education system in this country,” snarls Charlotte, “is fucked.”) As Charlotte, Gemma Whelan opens the show by swaggering through the audience like a rock star, demanding to know our fave Brontë quotes and offering selfies.

Director Natalie Ibu adds further gags, like a wonderfully silly riff on the interminable horse and carriage ride (complete with Monty Python-esque coconuts). There are nods to the gothic novels too: Grace Smart gives us a misty moor which is raised above the stage, roots left dangling, and when Charlotte is in a temper, thunder and lightning are never far behind.

We glimpse the real-world inspirations for the Brontës’ writing, and, conversely, how their lives were neatly shaped into socially acceptable narratives – partly by Charlotte, and then by their first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. Somewhere in between lies the truth. But what’s ultimately more important: hewing to realism (as Anne mainly does in her work), or crafting the juicier story?

The latter is more enjoyable in theatre, so Charlotte gets the best of it here, and Whelan is a charismatic powerhouse. The play’s meta-commentary ponders whether she’s “likeable” enough (a question seldom asked of a male character), but Whelan teases out the insecurity and loneliness beneath her relentless drive to achieve literary fame and status, as well as revelling in Charlotte’s bullish narcissism and spiky wit.

Rhiannon Clements brings affecting conviction to the gentler Anne (and may well inspire audience members to seek out or revisit her novels), while Adele James is a fiery Emily and the male supporting cast ably, if cartoonishly, multi-role.

Gordon’s telling has its own imbalances: Emily gets slightly lost in the mix. But in wittily breezing past the period trappings, she reclaims the sisters as complicated modern heroines, and asks searching questions about the artistic gatekeepers we still have in place today. That’s when this blistering production hits the wuthering heights.

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë is at the National Theatre to 25 May.

Photo credit: Underdog: The Other Other Brontë (Photo by Isha Shah)

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