Review: Bernarda Alba, Union Theatre

The cast of Bernarda Alba. Photo: Sherry Coenen

After a nearly 3-month break from theatre, I wanted to pick the right production to kick-start my love for the theatre. And where better to start than at the Union Theatre, one of my favourite theatre venues, and its current production, Bernarda Alba.

I am not familiar with the works of the Spanish dramatist Frederico Garcia Lorca from whose La Casa de Bernarda Alba this musical adaptation by US composer John LaChiusa is based on. With an excellent all female cast, the tension between the genders is the centrepiece of this musical which is set in a Spanish village.

Two male characters, though invisible, set the dramatic pace. The musical opens with the funeral of Bernarda Alba’s husband, leading to Bernarda Alba (played by Beverley Klein) imposing a suffocatingly long mourning period on her five daughters and three maids. The other male character is Pepe who is engaged to the eldest daughter, Angustias (played by Sophie Juge) but who has been having secret late night trysts with the youngest daughter, Adela (Amelia Adams-Pearce).

We see Bernarda Alba as a domineering mother ruling her household in a dictator-like fashion. She’s instantly unlikeable but the musical gives us a glimpse of the underlying reason behind her behaviour which is derived from society’s treatment of women who are ‘unconventional’. If she doesn’t protect her daughters and keep them ‘conventional’, society will mete out even more violent punishment to them. The economic and sexual limitations of women’s lives are accentuated by the gloomy set and the heavy black mourning garb. Comic relief in this stifling environment comes from Bernarda Alba’s senile mother, Maria Josepha (played by Buster Skeggs) who is able to articulate what the five daughters aren’t able to.

Written in the mid 1930’s, there is no obvious political reference in the play but there is no doubt that the Bernarda Alba’s household and village are symbolic of the political repression during the Spanish Civil War.

The folksy Spanish music and songs as well as the stylised flamenco dancing are good. Towards the end, there is a scene which depicts the daughters dreaming of Pepe while asleep and the wriggling of their bodies underlies the sheer amount of sexual repression in the household. The intimate space at the Union Theatre is handled well in this production where, at times, all the characters are on stage singing and dancing.

This musical is not without its minor flaws, however. The occasional turn of phrase sounds a little too English and the tragic ending elicits an almost comical melodramatic reaction from the daughters and maids. There is also a suggestion, fairly early on, that Bernarda Alba’s husband may have raped one of the maids but we hear no more of it as the musical progresses. But to focus anymore on these niggles will not do this fascinating musical any justice. It deserves to be seen.

Bernarda Alba is on at the Union Theatre until 17 September. Running time is 90 minutes with no intervals. Tickets are at £16 from the box office ( or 020 7261 9876).

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