THEATRE / Fogbound: Robert Hanks reviews novelist Fay Weldon's adaptation of Jane Eyre

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The Independent Culture
Running through Fay Weldon's adaptation of Jane Eyre is a joke about the pernicious influence of novels. The point is not just that the joke has been grafted on to a novel, but that it's a novelist who's done the grafting.

It's amusing enough, but you wonder if Weldon was wise to include it: there are times during Helena Kaut- Howson's production at the Playhouse, London, when it's hard not to think about how much better the book was, and how much better Weldon is as a novelist.

After the opening tableau, in which a corpse-coloured dummy in a child's dress shoots on to the stage perched on a sarcophagus to the accompaniment of screams, pulsing red lights and Raiders of the Lost Ark sound effects, we plunge straight into the plot: we're at Thornfield, the Rochester residence, where Jane is already tutoring young Adele. But what looks like radical simplification turns out to make life more difficult.

Jane's unhappy childhood is re-enacted in flashback, with a dummy standing in for the young Jane; meanwhile, the young Brontes - Branwell included - flit about in the background, narrating and speculating. With all these levels of memory and imagination at work, the complexity of structure soon starts to feel like no structure at all.

Things speed up considerably when Rochester arrives to begin his prickly romance with Jane - while Tim Pigott- Smith is oddly imperturbable, he's a good foil to Alexandra Mathie's Jane, a magnificent incarnation of stubborn virtue. In the second half, the script finds focus and pace but the direction and acting are mostly too weighty to carry off Weldon's light irony.

The sense of weight extends to Lez Brotherston's set. While its high granite walls act as a reminder that the Brontes' fiction had its roots in the Gothic, and give an admirable cloistering effect for the opening scenes, you sometimes wish they'd open up more. The set, like the action, feels cluttered - a cramping effect which is emphasised by the over-liberal use of dry ice. Fog- bound as it is, this production never seems quite ready to take off.

The Playhouse, London WC2 (071-839 4401), until 26 Febuary.