It was when she organised an online reading during lockdown that Brigid Larmour realised what a gift of a play she had on her hands. Her actors had gathered on Zoom to give an airing to Little Women in a new version by Anne-Marie Casey. As director, Larmour was delighted to watch as this adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic came alive.
"I was in London, Anne-Marie was in Ireland, some of the cast were in Pitlochry, some in Somerset – it was a true Zoom event," she says. "Even in those circumstances, it sang off the page. And, of course, we were all in lockdown so we were all identifying with that aspect of the play; there's a terrible civil war going on, but not in this room. It has a strong resonance for people now."
Alcott's novel is about the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, who come of age in Massachusetts during the American civil war. Their father is serving away from home as an army chaplain and they are left to make ends meet in their poor-but-generous way. Their social circle is small but they are ambitious to get ahead in the world on their own terms.
Casey has a long history with the book. Ten years ago, the playwright adapted it for the Gate Theatre in Dublin where it proved a hit. With a cast of 12, however, it was an expensive play to restage, so she resolved to streamline it further in the hope of extending its life.
"The book is so big – 800 or 900 pages – so the very first time I did it, I had to choose a line through it," says Casey, who focused especially on Jo, the second oldest sister, and her literary ambitions. "This version took that one step further."
The result, a play for eight actors, was a neat fit for a collaboration between Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, where Larmour is artistic director. She intends it to be the first of many cross-border co-productions. "It's necessary both creatively and in terms of sustainability," says the director. "It's neither financially nor environmentally sustainable for all the theatres around the United Kingdom to do a production of a play then put it in a skip after a few weeks. Increasingly, we want to share productions and resources."
She adds: "It’s a fantastic adaptation of a wonderful book. It's funny, engaging and tragic. It celebrates love, friendship and family. It is the opposite of saccharine and feels very right for the moment."
The book's popularity attests to that. It has never been out of print since its publication in 1868 and has been repeatedly adapted for stage and screen, whether that be the Katharine Hepburn movie of 1933, the Elizabeth Taylor version of 1949 or the 2019 version directed by Greta Gerwig.
"The book is a phenomenon," says Casey. "The characterisations are so interesting. The four sisters and the mother, Marmee, have very clearly defined flaws and challenges. There's a lot about women's repressed anger, which is not what the play is about, but there is an authenticity to it that resonates now. It is unique in 19th-century fiction with strong women characters in that they are proactive."
She points to Jo March, modelled on Alcott herself, who is sufficiently independently minded to become a writer and get the marriage she wants. "It is so far from other historical novels where the women all die, get consumption or are forced into these terrible marriages," she says. "There is something radical in the characters themselves, which makes it feel very real."
Avoiding the saccharine, however, does not mean underplaying the novel's emotional appeal. "British theatre in recent years has been out of love with emotion," says Larmour. "This piece is all about love, warmth and humanity. When I say it's not saccharine, to stretch the metaphor, there is honey in it. There is generosity, kindness and loyalty – as well as unkindness and betrayal. Audiences need that."
With period setting intact, the adaptation embraces both parts of the novel, which was originally published in two volumes, allowing for a three-year jump in the story. Ranging from the comic to the tragic, it follows the four sisters as they deal with everything from romance to fatal illness.
What marks the novel out is its vivid characterisations, the young women variously coming across as headstrong, timid, vain and indulgent. If Alcott had been writing today, reckons Larmour, she might have produced something like Derry Girls, the Troubles-era sitcom by Lisa McGee on Channel 4.
"I'm a big fan of Derry Girls," says the director. "It's so anarchic and there's such intensity of feeling and expression, and that's what it's like when you're that age. This is not Derry Girls because they are different characters and it is the 19th century, but it has that truthfulness that's not prettified. That said, there are very beautiful moments in the play, but they are anchored in truthfulness, not sentimentality."
"When you talk about Derry Girls, you talk about conflicts of the sisters and everyone's lived in a family and knows what that's like," says Casey, who overheard one of the male actors in the company describing himself as "such a Jo," a reflection of the story's universality. "Everyone is going to relate to this – male, female, kids… The characters are iconic."
Little Women, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 21 July until 29 September; Watford Palace Theatre, 11–22 October.