Exclusive Interview with Anne Odeke, writer of Little Women for the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Fifty years ago, American poet, writer and activist Robin Morgan coined the word ‘herstory’ to talk about historical events and facts seen from women’s perspective.

And Anne Odeke admits she’s a “massive fan” of the term and of the importance of looking at key moments in time through the female lens.

“Women have always been there, but we’ve always been the supporting role when it comes to historical narratives,” the actress, teacher and playwright points out.

“We very rarely make it to the forefront, and when we do those characters are normally women who are in positions of power, be it their birth right, or because they’ve married a rich man or a man in a powerful position.”

The characters in Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel Little Women may fall into none of those categories, but it’s through their eyes and lives that generations of booklovers have been helped to understand love, loss, war, peace, hope and happiness.

Alcott, herself an early feminist, set her story in the middle of the civil war that she and her fellow Americans had just lived through.

And now it’s being revisited and given a resonant retelling as part of this season’s Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, with the central narrative re-set in a different century and much closer to home.

Anne was asked to create the fresh adaptation after Storyhouse producer Helen Redcliffe saw her perform her powerful one-woman show Princess Essex – about Princess Dinubolu, the first black woman to enter a British beauty contest – and told her she was just the ‘girl power’ Grosvenor Park’s Little Women was looking for.

“A lot of people are really connected and love that story and it has a special place in a lot of hearts for various reasons,” says the playwright.

“Their mother read it to them, or they watched an adaptation, and that’s when they fell in love with the characters. It was the first story they came across that spoke about female strength and empowerment.”

It was Anne who decided to take the March sisters from 1860s Massachusetts and set them down in the surroundings of 1914 Chester with war breaking out just across the Channel and a battle for women’s rights being fought on home turf.

Her adaptation maintains not only the majority of Alcott’s characters, but also introduces a few more – including partygoers and some of the people who populate writer Jo’s imagination.

“The real heart of the story is still there, it’s just being told in a different way,” she explains.

Meanwhile a century on from Sir Edward Grey’s observation that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’, war is raging on the Continent once again and in many places around the world, women’s hard-won rights are having to be defended.

“It stresses the importance of compassion, of love, of laughter,” Anne says of Little Women. “Because if we don’t have those, that’s pretty much the end of humanity.

“And there’s no doubt in my mind that the audiences in the park really are in for an evening of love, laughter and compassion. It’s a shared experience, the park; you don’t know who you’re going to sit next to but it’s laughing with them, it’s crying with them, it’s all that.”

And she speaks from experience.

Five years ago, Anne was a member of the repertory company which performed during Storyhouse’s opening season which split itself between indoor and outdoor stages, appearing in Julius Caesar and as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“As an actor you travel around a lot. That’s part of why I love being a creative, of being an artist, because you get to meet so many different people and get to go to so many places,” she says.

“But Chester has a very special place in my heart. It was a magical year, not just because of the opening but because of the company – and that’s not just the cast, that involves everyone, all the way to the very top.

“That’s the word I’d use to describe it, magical. And particularly the park.”

Now she’s returning, albeit this time not on stage herself.

She smiles: “It doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard of Little Women or if it’s your favourite book in the whole world, this is a story which invites you to laugh, cry, whatever, and I loved writing it so I hope people will love watching.”