For playing the source material of Malory Towers with a relatively straight bat Emma Rice has performed probably her most subversive turn in years. You go into a Rice show with a certain expectation, an idea that what you are going to see could only be dreamt up from the fertile imagination of this one of a kind artist. Yet watching Wise Children earlier this year there were some nagging voices that her work was beginning to feel a little trope. So along comes Malory Towers, its material, for both good and bad, lifted wholesale from Enid Blyton’s book. It feels- even with an unnecessary prologue and epilogue- very old fashioned.
Rice writes movingly in her programme notes about her Mothers educational journey through a school very much like Malory, Lord Digby’s School in Sherborne. So, Blyton’s series of novels, about a group of girls who attend a castled boarding school on the cliffs of Cornwall (did JK Rowling ever get around to sending that royalty check) is close to her heart. In a present political and social-economic climate that tends towards the chaotic, it is clear as well that Rice has latched onto its message of kindness and tolerance as the ones we should be teaching our young people everywhere.
Yet the evening felt too twee, too on the nose, all jolly hockey sticks and clipped tones that stick it into alien territory. Its plotting is gentle and deliberately slow, akin to curling up on a Sunday evening to watch a show that will allow you to wallow in the nostalgia of a different time. The plot, what little there is, consists of friendships being made and broken, the girls going for a swim, and a clifftop ‘cliff-hanger’ before wrapping up with a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where more life lessons are learnt. Life and art definitely moved at a different pace once upon a time.
Rice, still creates one or two winning stage moments within her respectful production. The girls plunge into the sea is cleverly staged and the clifftop dangle builds tension. Yet ultimately, it’s the seven-strong, diverse cast that makes the work. Six alumni Izuka Hoyle’s Darrell is our likeable guide through the piece, quick to temper but with a big heart and great set of pipes on her, as does other past Six performer Renée Lamb as the wisecracking Alicia. Rose Shalloo is sweetly determined as the shy, nervous Mary Lou while Mirabelle Gremaud is a contortionist Irene. Rebecca Collingwood drips rich posh girl silver spoon, even if she also eventually finds redemption while Vinnie Heaven is a dashing horse mad Bill. But its Francesca Mills’ Sally who ultimately delivers the best lines, especially as she becomes the despotic director of The Dream, throwing out that if Shakespeare had wanted finger puppets, he would have written them into the script.
On a sweltering night in The Passenger Shed the company deserve great plaudits for putting their all into such a high-intensity show. A charming piece but one that undoubtedly feels like minor-key Rice.
Malory Towers plays at The Passenger Shed until the 18 August.