Not for the first time I have to start with a confession – once again, gentle reader, I confess I have never read Rebecca, nor seen the film, nor seen any kind of adaptation; and nor has Mrs Chrisparkle. Several years ago, the Dowager Mrs C was dismayed at this discovery and bought us the paperback to rectify this omission; but neither of us got round to reading it, and it has long ago gone on to a charity shop somewhere. So I thought this new production by Kneehigh was an excellent opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge – and it would have been for Mrs C too, had she not been called away on urgent business in Italy; so last night was a case of Cornish mystery for one.
I have, however, taken the opportunity to read some synopses of the book, fully digested its Wikipedia presence, and taken a look at a students’ crib notes website, and I think I’ve got the measure of it. On which topic, I’ve never seen so many schoolchildren at a theatre, as last night. “Schoolchildren” is probably the wrong word, as I’m sure they were all studying the book for A level. But I would estimate about 60-70% of the (full house) audience were youngsters – evidenced by the ear-threatening levels of noise in the foyers, and the fact that the bars were empty but the queues for ice cream and frozen yogurt almost encircled the building.
As I had no real knowledge of the book, I didn’t really research the production in advance, but I had no particular reason to suspect it wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of the original. Wrong! Even from my position of ignorance, I was pretty sure that Daphne du Maurier hadn’t included camp Vaudevillian song and dance in her book. Ten minutes in, and I was sighing with disappointment. It brought back to mind the self-indulgent and clever-clever excesses of The Secret Adversary earlier in the year, which I know some friends loved but we found tedious. I guess I was particularly disappointed because I knew this meant I wasn’t going to get the full picture of what the book is about, just some modern interpretation of aspects of it.
However, the positive effect of all this side-frilling was to emphasise the serious nature of the protagonists, and that created a huge impact on the proper storyline. Mrs de Winter, Maxim and Mrs Danvers all really stand out as strong characters facing harsh reality; and it’s that juxtaposition of seriousness and frivolity that gives the production its power. The second act in particular was charged with suspense – from the appearance of the coastguard onwards I was riveted to see how it would resolve itself. The first act “dress” scene – even without knowing the story I could see where this was heading – was also very exciting and dramatic, although surely it wasn’t the same dress as Mrs Danvers showed Mrs de Winter earlier on? It looked very different. Minor matter. But I really could have done without all the slapstick running around, and I thought the character of Robert the footman (based on Stan Laurel, maybe?), though executed with humour and agility, made me cringe with embarrassment throughout.
This is another of those on-trend productions that has some of the cast playing instruments on stage; to its credit, I thought the majority of the live music was really effective and atmospheric (and in particular, beautifully sung), but on the downside, at times, the tension-inducing background music overpowered the conversation on stage. But I really enjoyed Simon Baker’s original sea shanties that gave a true sense of 1930s smugglers’ coves. Leslie Travers’ set manages to encorporate Manderley, the sea, and the old boat house, with very effective compactness. Emma Rice’s adaptation has, I think (from my position of ignorance) done a lot of cutting, and it was only in retrospect – after reading the synopsis of the novel – that I realised that a fire was involved. Maybe I was being dense, or maybe something about the adaptation didn’t make it quite obvious enough. And, linguistically, it definitely takes some liberties. I’m sure Daphne du Maurier didn’t use the F word. It was funny, but so out of place.
The production features some terrific performances. I thought Imogen Sage as Mrs de Winter was outstanding. Wide eyed and desperately hoping to be accepted by the household, she is the perfect fish out of water; a picture of innocence in a world of secrets. Her loss of confidence and subsequent growth in influence is beautifully portrayed; and, unsurprisingly, her appearance in “the dress” encouraged some barely concealed gasps of admiration from the audience. Tristan Sturrock is an excellent Maxim, born to a world of wealth and seemingly at home in Manderley, very effective with his anger management issues and very believable when it appears his world is going to come tumbling down. Maybe most impressive of all, Emily Raymond makes a most disturbing Mrs Danvers, silently appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, her face set in rigid determination, her involvement with the late Rebecca too close for comfort. You really wouldn’t want her in your life.
I enjoyed Ewan Wardrop’s sleazeball interpretation of the role of Jack Favell – we saw him in Matthew Bourne’s Car Man fifteen years ago – his acting career certainly answers the question of what do you do when you can no longer dance – and his singing voice is top quality too. Andy Williams is a fine, authoritative Coastguard who dominates the proceedings when investigating Rebecca’s death. He doubles up as Giles, Maxim’s brother-in-law; a spirited performance but I found the whole Giles and Beatrice act just a little too pantomime for my taste.
So despite my problems with the vision for this production, I enjoyed it. When it takes the story seriously it’s extremely tense and effective, and the musical interludes are for the most part genuinely stirring. As for the light-hearted moments – well, I must be getting less flippant in my old age! After Northampton, there are just a few more venues on the tour – Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton. Worth seeing for the storytelling – but not for the purist!
Production photos by Steve Tanner