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Underdog: The Other Brontë

  • Theatre, Drama
  • National Theatre, South Bank
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Underdog: The Other Brontë, National Theatre, 2024
Photo: Isha Shah

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Gemma Whelan’s bolshy Charlotte steals the show in this uproarious drama about the Brontë sisters

‘What’s your favourite Brontë novel?’ demands Gemma Whelan’s bolshy Charlotte Brontë, as she accosts a succession of random audience members at the start of Sarah Gordon’s new play about the literary sisters.

Although really, ‘Underdog’ is mostly a play about the troubled relationship between Charlotte and Anne: the eldest and youngest, most and least famous Brontës. Charlotte is of course forever remembered thanks to her great work ‘Jane Eyre’, while Anne remains the most obscure of the trio - in large part because Charlotte banned further publication of Anne’s hit ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ after her little sister died at 29. 

If it’s not a neat comparison, I’d say there are some parallels with Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’, with Whelan’s Charlotte the domineering Salieri-style figure, weaving plots against Rhiannon Clements’s gifted but unworldly Anne. 

There’s a lot more swearing here, mind: Gordon’s dialogue is blunt, funny and wilfully anachronistic, the sisters goading each other in modern language, in Yorkshire accents so broad you could land a plane on them. Grace Smart’s set begins as a sumptuous, heather-strewn patch of moorland, but this is rapidly, ruthlessly pulled away – no romantic frills here.

You are never far from a laugh, and the supremely watchable Whelan devours her part whole: she is wonderful as the wildly insecure but entirely fearless Charlotte, swaggering through the story with the elemental strut of a nineteenth-century Liam Gallagher, but beset by a paranoia that swings between justified (Victorian society is not geared towards successful women) and toxic (she mercilessly vents her insecurities out on Anne). Is the underdog Anne? Probably. But it’s also how Charlotte views herself, and in terms of the society of the day, she’s not wrong.

In the end, though, I wasn’t convinced that the funniness of Gordon’s dialogue and Natalie Ibu‘s larky, visually inventive production always best served the actual story they were trying to tell. 

There is a lot here about legacy and memory and the suggestion that the shy, meek Anne we see for most of the play is actually just the version of her that Charlotte posthumously seeded in people’s minds. But this message feels blunted by larkiness, plus the obvious liberties Gordon has herself taken. 

Somebody unacquainted with the Brontës’ novels might get the impression from ‘Underdog’ that ‘Jane Eyre’ was a hack work that Charlotte ripped off from Anne’s overlooked debut ‘Agnes Grey’. Maybe there’s some truth in there. But I mean come on: most of us have read ‘Jane Eyre’ – even if Charlotte was as big a nightmare as ‘Underdog’ suggests, it’s a work of immortal genius. Gordon’s grumpiness about it often feels like she’s pushing a fringey revisionist theory that threatens to overshadow her advocacy for Anne. (It’s also confusing that Charlotte comes across so poorly when it’s intimated that we’re seeing all this from her perspective).

There’s also just something a bit loose end-ish about the lack of anything much for Adele James’s Emily to do – she buzzes around the periphery but Gordon has so little to say about her it almost feels like a distraction to include her. The woman wrote ‘Wuthering Heights’, show her some damn respect!

‘Underdog’ is a very funny play. That funniness doesn’t always work to its advantage. It has nuanced points about authorship, legacy and family that are obscured by the sound of laughter. But you’ll have fun, and you’ll probably want to read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ afterwards, so in that respect it’s a win.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


National Theatre
South Bank
View Website
Rail/Tube: Waterloo
£20-£65. Runs 2hr 15min

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