The Wardrobe Theatre’s latest anarchic Christmas show mixes the family dynamics and social pressures of Little Women’s 1860s Massachusetts, with the aliens, tech, and cool of Men in Black’s 1990s New York. Following Meg and Jo’s quest to save the planet, Laurie’s search for a wife, and Amy’s attempts at launching a pop career, Little Women in Black is a joyous show full of laughs, action, and music.
The four performers give fantastically irreverent portrayals; Tesni Kujore’s tomboy Jo is our headstrong host, Jessikah Wilson brings the show alive the first time she transforms from Meg to the super-cool Agent M, and Jenny Smith hops characters seamlessly between a whiny Amy, a chatty receptionist, and a brief but brilliant stint as a Wild West-tinged alien. Perhaps my favourite character in the show is Tom Fletcher’s Laurie, a bucket hat bedecked posh boy who mixes a compellingly confident alienness, with pathetic wounded privilege. With scenes mostly split up between Meg and Jo’s adventures, and the other characters back home, the two duos have strong chemistry, which sparks together even more when everyone’s on stage together.
One of the enduring strengths of the Wardrobe Christmas shows, which is out in full force here, is the way it extends this sense of camaraderie to invite the audience to be part of the gang. When Meg tires of adventure and longs for a husband, her ballad to an audience member is handled with a light touch to absolutely hilarious effect. And when ridiculous things happen onstage, or little mishaps occur – a dead character being half pulled into the wings, before having to scooch the rest of the way herself, or a misbehaving prop being lampshaded with a wink to the audience – it feels like the performers are bringing the audience in on an inside joke, creating an atmosphere that’s alive and welcoming.
This openness about the occasional awkwardness of doing stuff on stage makes the moments of real theatrical magic all the more effective. I won’t spoil the surprises for anyone, but there are several points of the show that elicit genuine gasps from the audience. In a nice touch, the genuinely hilarious songs are each in a different 90s style fitting for its character; R&B for the Little Women in Black, pop-punk for the alien villain, sad boy indie for Laurie, and for Amy a pop princess track so accurate that someone could easily convince me I danced to it at a school disco.
If there is one place where the production slightly stumbles it is pacing — with so many short scenes switching between the Little Women in Black out on adventures and their sisters back home, momentum is difficult to build. Despite brilliant transitions between scenes (including the funkiest fake stage walking I’ve ever seen) there are just so many of them that it’s inevitable that some apply the brakes. Pacing issues also arise from a difficulty in getting the stories to meld – various nods to the plot of Little Women (such as Amy burning Jo’s book, or falling through the ice) distract rather than add to the adventure unfolding, and many of the early times we see Amy and Beth mostly serve to remind us they are there.
However, in the second half these wobbles are left behind, and the show finishes on a slick and powerful climax; everything seems to pick up pace, and the plot coheres into a delightfully silly satire on matrimony and patriarchy. In one of my favourite sequences, Laurie and Amy’s desperation to marry is shown side by side as they each call up everyone they know to propose, melding the worlds of the two source materials perfectly.
Saucy and silly, Little Women in Black is a brilliant Christmas treat, that delivers a fun skewering of two well-loved stories.
Little Women in Black runs at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, until 16th January. More info here.