Brontë Burlesque

“The only truly lovable part of me was owned by the readers. “

Charlotte Brontë

Gemma Whelan as Charlotte Brontë (Photo: Isha Shah)

I am never very comfortable with works of fiction where real life historical figures are the subjects of speculation and fantasy.  But, if the aim is comedy, invention is forgivable.  There have been two comedies I have seen recently which take a 19th century author’s novel and turn it into a modern day farce.  One was Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) by Isobel McArthur and the other was Northanger Abbey by Zoë Cooper.  Together with Underdog, contemporary language is used and the audience responds with laughter, every time someone says fucking, which is often.

The play derived from the works of Jane Austen that I really want to see again is The Watsons by Laura Wade and directed by Samuel West, which was first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but which has a cast of 19, impossibly expensive in this age of tightening our theatrical belts.  Except that the National can afford similarly large casts! 

Nick Blakeley as Mrs Ingham and Rhiannon Clements as Anne Brontë (Photo: Isha Shah)

So back to what is available today, Underdog: The Other Other Brontë by Sarah Gordon.  The truth behind the assumed rivalry of the three Howarth Parsonage, Yorkshire sisters, Charlotte (Gemma Whelan), Emily (Adele James) and Anne (Rhiannon Clements) Brontë is that Anne died first of consumption, and Charlotte forbade the republishing of Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Charlotte also rewrote Anne’s other novel Agnes Grey, which along with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was a story of a governess.  Emily, in my opinion, author of the most wildly romantic Brontë novel Wuthering Heights with its flawed hero, Heathcliff, gets very little to do in Underdog.  Bramwell (James Phoon) is a drain on the Brontë family resources with his aspiration to be an artist and his philandering and addictions to alcohol and opium.

The play opens with Grace Smart’s beautiful, overgrown heathland set, wild grasses and wild flowers but all that is lifted so we now see the roots and earth below overhanging the revolving Dorfman stage.  We hear that Anne has applied to be a governess and has been accepted. 

This is an opportunity for ensemble actor Nick Blakely as Mrs Ingham to wear an outrageously ornate orange frock with bustle over his trousers topped with a confection of ribbons with orange feathers and tell Anne that she and Mr Ingham are very happily married. 

Rhiannon Clements as Anne Brontë in the wind. (Photo: ISha Shah)

The ensemble men,  all wearing red, grapple with foot diameter, ten feet long tubes which wittily deliver the wind effect simulating Yorkshire Moors weather.

In a new governess’s post, Anne moves onto the Cunliffe household where Mr Cunliffe (Kwaku Mills) introduces Anne to her new charges.  We hear the Cunliffe children screaming before we see one of them, whose first contact with Anne is to hit her.  Moving employers again, Anne succeeds as a governess at Thorp Green Hall and secures a post there for Branwell who is soon sacked for a love affair with the wife of his employer. 

Emily and Charlotte go to Belgium where Charlotte falls for her professor Monsieur Heger (Julian Moore-Cook).  Their aunt, who has been housekeeper at the Parsonage dies and her legacy to the girls allows a volume of poems to be published but only two copies are sold.  At this point they adopt the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell to pass as male writers and start writing novels.  


Company (Photo: Isha Shah)

As new novels are submitted, numerous rejection slips float down from the roots above.  A group of moustached publishers all dressed in striped blue cloaks and top hats with curiously smoking cigars on the top of the hats congregate.  These are two of the best comic visuals which the play does very well. Another is the carriage taking 17 hours to London where the groomsman operates slow coconut shells until the sisters arrive and descend only for the empty carriage to speed up with furiously fast coconut shells!

These jokes have little real relevance to the Brontë story which sees Charlotte lose three siblings to TB in a year.  The show is a comedy pastiche which wastes the acting talent of Gemma Whelan as Charlotte whose prickly character towards her sisters drives the farce.  What is worth watching are Grace Smart’s original designs and the many sight jokes. 

Ensemble (Photo: Isha Shah)

Production Notes

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë

Written by Sarah Gordon

Directed by Natalie Ibu



Adele James

Gemma Whelan

James Phoon

Julian Moore-Cook

Kwaku Mills

Nick Blakeley,

Rhiannon Clements

Adam Donaldson


Director:  Natalie Ibu

Designer: Grace Smart

Movement Designer: Ingrid Mackinnon

Lighting Designer: Zoë Spurr

Sound Designer:

Alexandra Faye Braithwaite

Fight Director: Haruka Kuroda


Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval

Booking to 25th May 2024


Dorfman Theatre

National Theatre

Upper Ground

South Bank

London SE1 9PX

Rail/Tube : Waterloo

Telephone: 020 7452 3000


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge

at the Dorfman

on 4th April 2024