Writer: Enid Blyton
Adapter: Emma Rice
Director: Emma Rice
Designer: Lez Brotherston
Composer: Ian Ross
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
When Emma Rice’s production of Malory Towers for her own company Wise Children, in association with York Theatre Royal, began its tour in Bristol, it garnered ecstatic reviews from parts of the national press. If this review is in only partial agreement, any reservations are in no way due to the wonderfully evocative visuals and the energy, skill and teamwork of the young cast.
The six books of the Malory Towers series were written by Enid Blyton in the years immediately following the Second World War. They follow the adventures of the girls at Malory Towers, a boarding school spectacularly sited on a Cornish headland. Emma Rice’s adaptation draws mainly on First Term… and is more concerned with the relationships between seven girls than with any developing storyline. Basically two dramatic things happen: Mary Lou, bullied by Gwendoline, tries to escape, falls off a cliff and has to be rescued by five brave girls and a horse. Then, after final confrontation and reconciliation with Gwendoline, the girls stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The girls fall into clearly defined types, played up to the hilt by a zestful cast. Darrell (Izuka Hoyle) is the new girl whose sense of honour combines with her hot temper in getting her into trouble. Gwendoline, a spoilt, selfish bully (Rebecca Collingwood), has enough troubles of her own to make us forgive her. Sensible Sally (Francesca Mills), with her grown-up views, becomes rather less sensible when given a taste of power. Mary Lou (Rose Shalloo) has to overcome her timidity, Alicia (Renee Lamb) tries to conceal her academic failure under a joky exterior, Bill (Vinnie Heaven) is the traditional tomboy – “Don’t call me Wilhelmina!” – and Irene Dupont (Mirabelle Gremaud) is formidably athletic, turning cartwheels at every opportunity.
The problem is how seriously to take this. Rice expresses her admiration for the values of the books (and, indeed, that whole post-war generation) in the programme. No one would disagree with applauding such virtues as soundness of character, trust and consideration for others, but we are reminded of them rather often. The tests of character that the girls undergo in turn and the revelations of why they are as they are (even the awful Gwendoline) seem rather schematic.
It’s difficult to tell how far it is meant as parody. It’s far from the madcap re-telling of, say, 39 Steps and, on the other hand, equally far from a conventional old-style BBC children’s serial, but it has hints of both. The scenes that work best often have an affectionate note of parody, such as the first scene at Paddington Station with all the girls repeating their full names like a mantra. Incidentally, this is not quite the opening: a rather unnecessary modern school scene frames the action and, much more enjoyably, a rumbustious version of Sing Sing Sing opens and closes the show.
The whole production style sparkles with originality and energy. Songs are a mix of old favourites and new Rice/Ian Ross compositions, well delivered (Rebecca Collingwood really moving on I Can Dream, Can’t I?) and smartly accompanied by Stephanie Hockley who also plays a mean kazoo. Lez Brotherston’s designs, with video design from Simon Baker, work perfectly, the two-level split ideal for bouncing and bounding up and down. Between the towers of the castle-cum-school projections take us everywhere from Paddington Station to a bosky dell – and watch out for that galloping horse. The Headmistress is a convincing silhouette projection, beautifully voiced by Sheila Hancock.
Less traditional than much of the dialogue is the casting which makes full use of minorities of different kinds, including a Sally affected by dwarfism (Francesca Mills, gloriously bossy) and Bill played by a non-binary trans performer. All seven cast members are excellent, with Izuka Hoyle holding things together effectively as Darrell.
Runs until September 14, 2019 | Image: Steve Tanner